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ZOZO Championship 2021 Tips: Keegan Bradley heads five picks in Japan

ZOZO Championship Tips and betting preview.
ZOZO Championship Tips and betting preview.

This week the PGA Tour heads to Japan for the Zozo Championship. After the 2020 renewal taking place at Sherwood Country Club in California due the pandemic, we return to the course where the event made its debut back in 2019, Narashino Country Club.

Narashino CC is a tree-lined par 70 measuring 7041 yards. Unusually for a par 70, the course possesses three par 5s, with five par 3s and ten par 4s making up the rest of the setup.

Typical of Japan, there are two greens to every hole (used for different times of the year), with the bentgrass ones used this week as we arrive in the cooler months. Greens are small, for the most part and protected by a bounty of bunkers.

There are doglegs aplenty through these tight, tree-lined corridors and some rather narrow fairways, though they are predominantly bordered by rough that isn’t too punishing on the whole. This is why we saw bigger hitters fare well here two years ago. Water well in-play on a few holes to provide jeopardy for those who aren’t up to scratch with their long game.

ZOZO Championship Tips

Tiger Woods won the inaugural championship in 2019. Winning by three shots over Hideki Matsuyama with a score of -19 and it was the last place we saw him taste victory. He was exceptional that week and started the event with three straight bogeys, taking advantage of the soft putting surfaces with some superb approach play, particularly excelling on the par 3s. 

As a new course to our TV screens two years ago, it was tough to know exactly what to expect but, in the end, we were left with a leaderboard that was packed full of quality ball-strikers, particularly strong drivers. Rory Mcilroy, Gary Woodland, Sungjae Im and Corey Conners amongst the other players in the top 10.

You can see why this transpired when looking at the course. The par 4s are, for the most part, either really long, with many close to/over 500 yards, or under 400 yards. Quality driving needed to handle the former and to take on the latter. With quite a few opportunities to cut corners on some of the doglegs, giving yourself a shorter distance into the green.

Weather can be very unpredictable in this part of the world and does look set to be windy, at least at the start of the week. It’s also fair to expect, at this time of year, that the putting surfaces will again be receptive.

The field is relatively weak. Hideki Matsuyama returns home, whilst Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele are also in the field. As are an abundance of players from the Japan Tour, including two guys who have occupied the top spot in the amateur rankings. Takumi Kanaya a former world #1 and already a 3-time winner in Japan and Keita Nakajima, the current #1 amateur in the world, who also has a victory on the Japan Tour under his belt.

Golf betting odds
Keegan Bradley each-way (6 places)
Odds correct as of 2021-10-18 18:35 Odds subject to change.

Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele head the market at single figures. So, much like Jon Rahm the last few weeks over in Europe, are left alone in the hope of finding someone at a price who can beat them. With nobody really appealing at the top end at the prices, I start quite low down with this week’s selections at 40/1, with the excellent ball-striking Keegan Bradley.

Ever since he arrived on tour, Bradley has been an excellent ball-striker and this year has been no exception. Shown by him ranking 4th in approach and 28th off-the-tee on the PGA Tour last season. With this, he very much fits the bill for this test, evidenced two years ago when he finished 13th. Also shooting the joint best round of the week, with a -7 in the second round.

His form this year has been solid enough - 6 missed cuts in 20 and 8 times finishing in the top 25. The best of those efforts was his runner-up finish to Sam Burns in the Valspar at the start of May, which may well be a decent comp for this test. Gary Woodland, who is a past champion there, finished 5th in Japan two years ago, Sungjae Im, who finished 3rd here two years ago has a 4th at Innisbrook, Danny Lee with top 10s at the two courses and Paul Casey, a two-time winner of the Valspar, finished a solid 17th. It’s easy to see why, as they are both tree-lined courses, with plenty of doglegs, water in play and favour quality ball-strikers. 

Bradley hasn’t won since 2017 and has an ongoing battle with the putter. Though last week in Vegas, when finishing 32nd, he putt pretty well, ranking 22nd in the field. If he can keep the putter rolling this week, he has a good chance of improving on that 13th place finish on debut and as one of the best ball-strikers in the field, should once again take advantage of a course that suits his game. 

Kyoung-hoon Lee each-way (7 places)
Odds correct as of 2021-10-18 18:35 Odds subject to change.

As a two-time winner on the Japan Tour, Kyoung-hoon Lee should feel as comfortable with his surroundings as most and comes into this event off the back of a good run of form.

After picking up his first PGA Tour title at the AT&T Byron Nelson back in May, Lee has continued to play solid golf. He’s missed just 4 cuts in his last 13 events, picking up 5 top 25s in the process. The most recent of them last week in Vegas, when he shot three rounds of 66 or better for a 25th place finish. Particularly excelling with his irons, ranking 9th in approach for the week.

This performance particularly encouraging, as last season, Lee struggled with that aspect of his game. The driver and his short-game rating as his biggest assets.

As mentioned, he’s more than familiar to golf in Japan. Playing permanently on the tour from 2012 – 2015 and picking up two titles to go with his two victories in the Korea Open, before that 5th and biggest win of his career earlier this year.

Despite not playing here two years ago, he has a couple of results on his C.V that correlate with the players we saw do well here in 2019. A 2nd at the Phoenix Open reads well, as does a 7th place finish in the Honda Classic.

He’s a strong driver and if he can continue his excellent iron play from last week, looks set for a big week on his return to Japan.

Carlos Ortiz each-way (6 places)
Odds correct as of 2021-10-18 18:40 Odds subject to change.

Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz is another strong driver who had a really eye-catching week with his irons last week at the Summit Club. Also finishing 25th, he ranked 5th in approach and drove the ball typically well, ranking 28th. One of the better ball-striking performances in the field.

His form this year has been a little in and out, this coming after picking up his first PGA Tour title at the end of 2020 in the Houston Open. An event in which quality ball-strikers featured heavily on the leaderboard. He’s missed 7 cuts in 25, though only 1 of them has come in his last 7 starts, as he’s been playing more solid golf of late.

He’s another who’s gone well in Phoenix, where he finished 4th in his best performance of this year. To go with that is a great record in the Sanderson Farms Championship, recording finishes of 3rd and 4th. Corey Conners and Sungjae Im are both runners up there, who hit the top 10 here in 2019.

Much like Lee, he’s a strong driver and ranked 43rd on the PGA Tour last season off-the-tee. If able to build on that quality display with his irons last week, he looks the type to go well at this venue.

Golf betting tips
Henrik Norlander each-way (6 places)
Odds correct as of 2021-10-18 18:45 Odds subject to change.

Amassing two top 5s in his last 5 starts, Sweden’s Henrik Norlander is in a fine vein of form. As a solid driver and an excellent iron player, where he ranked 27th on the PGA Tour last season, he has the game to go well this week.

The most recent of those top 5s came in his second to last start, when he finished 4th at the Sanderson Farms Championship. An event previously mentioned as having form-ties with the Zozo leaderboard from two years ago and he’s also finished 4th there on one previous occasion. That week he put up an impressive, field leading performance in approach play, gaining over 8 shots, with only eventual winner, Sam Burns close to his level of play with the irons.

Though he hasn’t driven it particularly well in the couple of events he’s played so far this season, he ranked a solid 68th on tour last season off-the-tee, so I have few real concerns there.

He’s never won at this level, but has twice finished 2nd, most recently this year at Torrey Pines in the Farmers Insurance Open. He does possess two victories on the Korn Ferry Tour though, and I believe this relatively weak, limited field event represents a good chance for him to break his PGA Tour duck.

Ryosuke Kinoshita each-way (7 places)
Odds correct as of 2021-10-18 18:45 Odds subject to change.

There’s a pretty strong group of Japan Tour players teeing it up this week and though they didn’t feature heavily on the leaderboard in 2019, I feel it may be a different story this year in this much weaker field.

We have the current and former #1 amateurs in here, with Nakajima and Kanaya, along with the likes of Chan Kim and Scott Vincent, all players who hit the ball well enough to have a say this week. But I’m going to chance another guy at big odds, who ranks a clear 1st on the Japan Tour in ball-striking, greens-in-regulation and total driving and has been in excellent form this year, Ryosuke Kinoshita. 

Kinoshita’s stats mentioned above are quite something. 1st in ball-striking is impressive enough but to do that by being ranked 1st in GIR and total driving is exceptional. This explains a blistering year for him, where he’s picked up two titles and has finished top 10 in 5 of his last 6 events, with a run of form coming into this event that reads 5-3-8-9-MC-3.

He made his PGA Tour debut right at the start of this year in Hawaii, making the cut and shooting 4 rounds in the 60s. To go with that he made the cut in this year’s Open Championship and finished a more than respectable 43rd in the St Jude Classic a few months ago in a top quality field.

I fancy Kinoshita to step up on that strong year and take advantage of his top notch ball-striking to give a good account of himself this week and rates for me as the most likely of the Japan Tour contingent to cause a stir on the leaderboard.

He’s also worth checking out in the top 10/20 markets when they get priced up.

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