2pts each-way Collin Morikawa @ 14/1
1.5pts each-way Sungjae Im @ 10/1
1.5pts each-way Hideki Matsuyama @ 12/1
0.5pts each-way Mackenzie Hughes @ 40/1
0.5pts each-way Keegan Bradley @ 25/1
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What a weekend it was for golf’s youngbloods with 20-year-old Korean sensation Tom Kim winning for the second time on the PGA Tour and 22-year-old Spanish hunk Eugenio Lopez-Chacarra nabbing a nifty $4m from Saudi’s ever-open coffers in the LIV tournament in Bangkok where the market leaders all flopped.
Both are exciting and commercial, full of positivity and special. Would that we had one equally charismatic in the U.K. but Japan might have a contender in Keita Nakajima, who was the No. 1 amateur in the world for a long time, and we’ll see what the 22-year-old can do in the rarefied company of the ZOZO Championship this week.
He’s a 250/1 shot with Fitzdares at the Narashino Country Club east of Tokyo and I am not for a moment suggesting he is yet good enough to beat the likes of defending champion and national icon Hideki Matsuyama or a raft of star names including Olympic gold medalist Xander Schauffele and double major winner Collin Morikawa.
But if Matsuyama, who has had plenty of problems with neck and wrist injuries this year, fails to fire under the weight of expectation from his adoring army of fans, Nakajima could be each-way value at 20/1 for Top Japanese player. Or you could go down the threeball route and back him at 3/1 to win his opening game with Davis Riley and Kurt Kitayama.
Nakajima was a highly respectable 28th in last year’s ZOZO and showed huge potential when 41st in the Sony Open in Hawaii in January. A winner on the Japan Tour as an amateur, he is now a professional and itching to make his mark.
He is the future but what about the past? Three years ago, the Narashino course was where Tiger Woods won his 82nd and probably last PGA Tour event. That three-shot victory over Matsuyama came in the inaugural ZOZO Championship and is one of only two form lines we have for the current renewal as the 2020 edition was wiped out by Covid.
It is no secret that the Saudi-backed LIV operation has made persistent overtures to Matsuyama who is reported to have turned down a signing-on fee that must have been hard to resist. Sums of $300m and higher have been bandied about such is the value of the 2021 Masters champion to LIV’s ambitions in Asia.
Few would be surprised if Matsuyama, once he has got this ZOZO title defence out of the way – he eagled the last for a runaway victory last year – were to join the exodus to LIV.
A repeat victory would no doubt lead to an increased offer from LIV but after a patchy 2022 in which he has had to miss important tournaments Matsuyama will be vulnerable.
Plenty will fancy their chances of dethroning him, not least Tom Kim, now twice a winner in his last four PGA starts after holding his nerve better than Patrick Cantlay in Las Vegas.
Between the Wyndham and Shriners triumphs the boy wonder made a lot of noise in an impressive Presidents Cup debut and the golf-mad Japanese will surely take him to their hearts. His presence may even take some of the heat off Matsuyama.
The fans already know Schauffele from his 2020 Olympics gold in Tokyo but that was on a different course. On previous visits to Narashino he was only 10th and 28th but there’s nothing wrong with his current form as he followed fourth place at the Tour Championship by winning three points out of four at the Presidents Cup.
But at almost twice Schauffele’s price, fellow Californian Morikawa, another with a local connection as he is of Chinese-Japanese origin, makes more appeal. Seventh at Narashino last year, expect the 2021 Open champion to improve considerably on a year that has been flat by his own high standards.
Since his DP World Tour Championship triumph 11 months ago and with it the Race To Dubai honours, Morikawa has produced a number of top-five finishes but has stayed under the radar as far as making headlines. He can change all that in Japan.
Sungjae Im, third to Tiger in the 2019 Zozo and in terrific form in recent months, wasn’t disgraced in seventh place at the Shriners on Sunday, and Si Woo Kim, just a shot behind Im, join new kid on the block Tom in a powerful Korean challenge.
Viktor Hovland, Tyrrell Hatton, Sepp Straka and Tommy Fleetwood (disappointing last week) head the European challenge. All are capable of winning but neither Hatton or Fleetwood has managed to do so yet this campaign.
Keegan Bradley, seventh and 13th on previous visits and a regular contender in recent months, has a shout while Mackenzie Hughes, fourth last year, was magic around the greens when winning the Sanderson Farms and is on a high.
It’s a short field of 78, there’s no cut, $11m to be won and a 7079-yard par 70 parkland course to be conquered. And after a bit of rain on Thursday, we’re set for a dry week with temperatures in the high 70s.
My five bets all have course form – Matsuyama 31 under par in finishing first and second, Morikawa seventh last year, Im third in 2019, Hughes fourth a year ago and Bradley seventh and 13th.
2.5pts each-way Matt Fitzpatrick @ 11/2
1pt each-way Antoine Rozner @ 28/1
1pt each-way Guido Migliozzi @ 50/1
0.5pt each-way Kiradech Aphibarnrat @ 80/1
0.5pt each-way Min Woo Lee @ 20/1
0.5pt each-way Soren Kjeldsen @ 100/1
Jon Rahm came, saw and conquered quite majestically in Madrid, fully justifying his skimpy odds, so short that most punters will have been frightened off. But as the after-timers are prone to say: a 21/10 winner beats a 25/1 loser any day.
Sadly the great Spaniard won’t be around for the rest of the Iberian Swing which means he misses this week’s Andalucia Masters on one of Europe’s finest golf courses, Valderrama, brilliant venue of that pulsating 1997 Ryder Cup where it all came down to the final match and Seve’s squad edged home by a whisker under hard driving by captain Ballesteros who was here, there and everywhere, itching to play every shot himself.
It was young Tiger Woods’ first and Nick Faldo’s last. Both lost their singles and, as it turned out, big outsider Costantino Rocca’s 3 & 2 schooling of Masters champion Woods was the difference between victory and defeat.
At 7028 yards par 71 Valderrama is short by today’s standards but it was never a test of length. With overhanging trees, even one or two of them bang in the middle of tight fairways, it demands straight driving, great positional play and a good nerve on undulating greens. The short holes are all trouble.
There will be no massively under-par winner this time. In fact, when American plodder John Catlin won two years ago, his winning score was two OVER par.
Last year’s winner Matt Fitzpatrick, now US Open champion, did somehow get it to six-under which gave him a three-stroke margin over Min Woo Lee and Sebastian Soderberg. As Min Woo matched Rahm shot for shot for much of the final round in Madrid before settling for third place, will fancy his chances of upsetting the favourite.
You would have to ignore recent form if you want to back Catlin who followed his 2020 win with 11th last year as he has missed his last four cuts. On the other hand, Valderrama is very much a one-off. There are no other courses like it on the rota.
More interesting is Frenchman Antoine Rozner, a two-time tour winner with course form (third to Catlin in 2020) who has been rattling the crossbar in recent outings.
He was fourth on another fiddly course at Crans, one of four excellent finishes from his five latest starts, and fourth again last time out at the Dunhill Links. Rozner is overdue.
Dunhill winner Ryan Fox would have every chance of a quick follow-up but I’m swerving the locals this week as no Spaniard has finished in the top ten in the two latest editions. Sadly, course specialist Sergio Garcia, champion in 2011, 2017 and 2018, is otherwise engaged, chasing bigger bucks with LIV in Saudi Arabia.
The Hojgaard twins might be worth a second look but Italian stallion Guido Migliozzi makes more appeal as he has course credentials (sixth in 2020) and finally found his game by edging out Rasmus Hojgaard in the French Open.
The best outsider could be talented Thai Kiradech Aphibarnat who has emerged from a wretched year to post three decent finishes, top-15s in the Wyndham on the PGA Tour and the Italian Open in Europe and his first top-ten of the year in Madrid on Sunday.
At even longer odds old-timer Soren Kjeldsen (100/1) and James Morrison (150/1) are worth a second look. They shared fourth place when the Spanish Open went to Valderrama in 2016.
Both play a similar game, nudging the ball into position off the tee, and the stumpy Dane, now 47, demonstrated he still has plenty of game when fifth in the BMW PGA at Wentworth last month.
But the one they all have to beat is class act Fitzpatrick, pipped in a playoff by Bob MacIntyre in Rome two outings ago and holding his form well. Unlike Rahm, he’s a favourite at a price we can get stuck into.
LIV GOLF JEDDAH
2pts each-way Harold Varner III @ 20/1
1pt each-way Paul Casey @ 18/1
1pt each-way Joaquin Niemann @ 9/1
2pts win Dustin Johnson @ 11/2
Back in February Harold Varner III sank a 92ft eagle putt to pip Bubba Watson in a spectacular climax to the Asian Tour’s $5m flagship Saudi International … eight months later the happy-go-lucky little American is back there hoping Lady Luck smiles on him again in Jeddah in the seventh of the LIV series of $25m tournaments.
Already in love with the Royal Greens course after collecting the biggest cheque, $1m, of his career there, Varner will get his hands on four times that amount if he can repeat that success in the final 54-hole LIV event of the year (there’s still a 72-hole team competition to come in Miami at the end of the month).
After last week’s sixth behind shock 100/1 winner Eugenio Lopez-Chacarra it is entirely possible that Varner’s hugely positive mental affiliation to Saudi will inspire the African-American from Ohio to overcome opponents of the calibre of Dustin Johnson and Open champion Cameron Smith in a field of 48.
We have had six different LIV winners so far, and that pattern could well be extended, particularly if DJ (15th) and Smith (41st) play as poorly as they did last week.
Varner apart, Sunday’s runner-up Patrick Reed, Joaquin Niemann, Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey are all hungry for that elusive first $4m payday and that’s a sum that will concentrate anyone’s mind.
Coming off a long injury break – he barely played after March because of a back problem – Casey has been slow getting his act back together but he was noted hitting all 18 greens in regulation last week when finishing third and the Arizona-based Ryder Cup star must have a fighting chance of being the first Brit to win.
Johnson already has the $18m bonus for leading golfer of the series wrapped up as he can’t be caught but it would be crazy to ignore his record on this 7010-yard par 70. He won there in 2019 when it was a European Tour event, finished runner-up the following year and won again in 2021.
This year when the International was first sponsored by the Public Investment Fund (PIV) which is where all the LIV billions are coming from, DJ fell off the gold standard somewhat in finishing only eighth to Varner and in truth it’s not a course made for him as there are only two par fives. Yet 51 under for 16 rounds there tells its own story.
There was no hint from Lopez-Chacarra’s first four LIV outings (27-24–37-25) that the former No. 2 amateur in the world was about to triumph on only the 22-year-old Spaniard’s fifth pro start but, like Tom Kim on the PGA Tour, he is exactly the type of exciting, charismatic young talent the public wants to cheer for.
It will be interesting to see what offers LIV come up with to tempt the 20-year-old Kim for next year’s enhanced 14-tournament programme.
We have yet to see the best of one-time world No. 1 amateur Niemann and you have to forgive the classy Chilean one bad week at the office in Bangkok where he could only finish 20th.
Judge the impressive Riviera winner more on his LIV debut in Boston where he went down to DJ in a playoff. His subsequent fifth in Chicago was decent too and it’s easy to forget he’s still only 23. There’s plenty to come.
It’s a Friday shotgun start and whoever wins will have got up a good sweat as the forecast is for 96F and sun, sun, sun. Who’s going to be too hot to handle?
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