This article is part of our DraftKings PGA series.
THE ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP
Winner's Share: $1.755M
FedEx Cup Points: 500 to the Winner
Location: Chiba, Japan
Course: Narashino Country Club
There are a lot of unknowns to unpack this week. This is the first PGA Tour event ever played in Japan. It's therefore at an unfamiliar course. Just days ago, there was scant information about Narashino anywhere. Other than the hole-by-hole flyovers on the tournament's website, there was zippo about Zozo – and if you want to know what Zozo is, Google it. Of course, the biggest unknown is always the biggest and most important unknown: Tiger Woods. Since we last saw Woods two months ago, he underwent a fifth surgical procedure on his left knee. He looked fine at the skins game on Monday, but four tournament rounds present a far bigger test. It will go a long way in determining whether Woods names himself as a Presidents Cup captain's pick when the four selections are announced Nov. 4.
Woods, along with Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and hometown star Hideki Matsuyama, got a leg up on the rest of the 78-player, no-cut field by playing the skins game. We watched, which will surely help us devise a lineup strategy. More on that in the Key Stats and Champion's Profile below.
Here are some basics: The Zozo is co-sponsored by the PGA and Japan Tours and in effect replaces the now-defunct CIMB Classic (Malaysia) on the PGA Tour calendar. It is contracted to run at least through 2025. This is the second leg of the three-pronged Asian Swing, with the same enormous purse that last week's CJ Cup carried – bigger than any tournament other than the majors/WGCs/PLAYERS. Unlike last week, we have a pretty strong field. There are four in the top-10 of the OWGR – McIlroy, Woods, Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele – plus 14 among the top 25 and 25 among the top 40. Like the CJ Cup, the field has strict parameters: the top 60 available from last season's FedEx top 125, the top seven players on the Japan Tour through last week's Bridgestone Open, the top three finishers in the Bridgestone and eight sponsor exemptions. Shugo Imahira, known to many American golf fans and ranked 52nd in the world, just won the Bridgestone for the second straight year, though this year the tournament was cut to two rounds because of Typhoon Hagibis. Narashino received minimal damage from the vicious storm.
The 36-hole Narashino Club opened in 1976. At just over 7,000 yards, the course is short, even at a par-70. But it appeared to play longer and it's not a regular 70 – there are five par-3s and three par-5s. There are some really short holes, some really long ones, and not much in between. The par-3s are all short, at under 200 yards. The 10 par-4s are either fewer than 425 yards or more than 485. Two of the par-5s are around 600 yards; the third is the 562-yard 18th, meaning there is the potential for drama late on Sunday. There is water on five holes, but that's not enough of a defense for today's pro, so what other defenses are there? The fairways are narrow and tree-lined with dips and elevations. The golfers in the skins game used driver less than half the time. Each hole has two greens, which is customary in Japan (who knew?). They were all well-protected by bunkers, and it appeared there was a larger green and a smaller green on each hole. They mostly used the larger ones in the skins game, and they will stick with one green all week on 17 of the 18 holes (only No. 4 will switch). If a ball lands on the other green, the golfer will get a free drop.
Weather-wise, it's been a rainy start to autumn in the Tokyo area, and more rain is in the forecast for the tournament itself, especially on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Otherwise, high temperatures will be about 70 with moderate wind.
Fun Fall Season Factoid: Woods last played in a fall PGA Tour event at the 2011 Frys.com Open (now the Safeway Open). He tied for 30th, far behind the dynamic duo of winner Bryce Molder and runner-up Briny Baird. Woods also competed in the CIMB Classic a year later, but it was not yet an official Tour event.
Factoid that probably interests only us: Rancho Park, the Los Angeles muni where they used to play what is now the Genesis Invitational, has double greens on two holes, Nos. 16 and 17. The holes play far differently depending on which green is used.
Lastly, we should also note that golf will return to the Olympics in Tokyo next year, though at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Saitama.
Key Stats to Winning at Narashino
Note - The most important indicators every week are current form and course history. "Key stats" follow in importance.
• Greens in regulation/strokes gained: approach
• Scrambling/strokes gained: around the green
• Putting average/strokes gained: putting
• Driving accuracy/Strokes gained: off the tee
Our first thoughts from watching the skins game were that driving accuracy and iron play will be paramount this week. And while we think they will be important, Narashino showed that good scrambling skills will be required, with undulations and bunkers around the greens. And there were not that many putts being made by the four golfers. So, short game. The bentgrass greens seemed rather flat, and getting the right speed proved difficult. It's tough to predict what the winning score will be, but the guess is it will be far lower than Justin Thomas' winning score of 20-under-par last week at the CJ Cup.
DRAFTKINGS VALUE PICKS (Based on Standard $50K Salary Cap)
Tier 1 Values
Justin Thomas - $11,800 (Winning odds at golfodds.com: 7-1)
It's always dicey to jump on last week's winner, especially one who is the top guy on the DraftKings board. But Thomas is amid a stretch we don't often see: two wins in his past four starts, and seven straight top-12s. He's simply found another gear. Putting has traditionally been the weakest part of Thomas' game. Last week at Nine Bridges, he ranked 10th in putting average.
Rory McIlroy - $11,500 (8-1)
McIlroy had quite a Monday: He won 60 grand at the skins game and also was one of four golfers to get an early advantage by playing Narashino. McIlroy isn't quite as hot as Thomas, but he does have have five top-10s in his past seven starts, including a win and a runner-up. Quite simply, he's the best driver of the golf ball in the world, an important consideration this week.
Paul Casey - $10,100 (25-1)
It appears slow and steady will be the way to go at Narashino, which is right up Casey's alley. This will be his PGA Tour season debut, but he's played three times in Europe since last season ended, including a win in Germany. Casey ranked sixth on the PGA Tour in strokes gained: tee to green last season, and is strong in every facet but putting.
Tier 2 Values
Gary Woodland - $9,500 (30-1)
For years, we have said that Woodland was the straightest long hitter off the tee. That may not be the case anymore, but only because McIlroy is otherworldly. Woodland's short game is not the best, but it was quite good last week when he tied for third at Nine Bridges, ranking T14 in scrambling and 21st in putting average.
Matthew Fitzpatrick - $9,000 (40-1)
After finishing tied for fourth at the WGC event in late July, Fitzpatrick has two runners-up in his past five worldwide starts. That surge has lifted him to a career-best world ranking of 26th. Fitzpatrick is very accurate tee to green, ranking in the top-25 on the European Tour in both driving accuracy and greens in regulation.
Joaquin Niemann - $8,200 (50-1)
Niemann won the season-opening Greenbrier then, after a couple of subpar outings, tied for 12th last week at the CJ Cup. He ranked 12th in the field in scrambling, something that if repeated this week would likely lead to another good finish.
Tier 3 Values
Kevin Na - $7,900 (50-1)
Following his victory at the Shriners tournament, his second win in five months, Na impressively tied for 20th at the CJ Cup. He has had to endure the airing of some details of his personal life in his native South Korea, so returning home – and playing good golf – could not have been easy. Na is not the most accurate with his irons, but he ranks top-10 in scrambling and top-20 in putting average so far this season.
Ryan Moore - $7,800 (50-1)
Moore followed up a T13 at the Shriners event with a T8 at the CJ Cup. He's not a flashy player, but he is accurate off the tee, good with his irons and generally good enough of a scrambler and putter. That sounds like a recipe for success on Narashino.
Charles Howell III - $7,300 (80-1)
Howell has slipped from the top 50 in the OWGR and needs to get back by year's end to ensure a return trip to his beloved Augusta. Unless of course he wins between now and then. We don't foresee that happening this week, but the 56th-ranked Howell has the game to make a good showing this week. He ranked seventh on Tour in greens in regulation last season, and was also top-20 in strokes gained: around the green.
Jason Kokrak - $7,000 (80-1)
Kokrak has played two events this season, and those have resulted in a missed cut and a tie for 63rd. Yet with those two terrible showings, he is ranked seventh on Tour in strokes gained: tee to green. Why? His putting is horrible. But that's something we're willing to overlook at $7,000. Kokrak is rock solid off the tee and from the fairway, which could be good enough to snare a top-25 this week.
Dylan Frittelli - $6,700 (100-1)
The South African cooled off after winning the John Deere Classic over the summer, but he started this season with a pair of top-10s. That's landed him two more top-10s so far this season: in strokes gained: approach and SG around the green. Frittelli ranked 12th in the field in greens in regulation at the CJ Cup, but his putting let him down.
Wyndham Clark - $6,600 (100-1)
Clark was in a big-time slump, missing the cut in his first three starts this season, but he tied for eighth last week at Nine Bridges. He ranked top-15 in the field in both scrambling and putting average, regaining the stroke he so often displayed last season.