THE ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP
2.5pts each-way Hideki Matsuyama @ 11/1
2pts each-way Xander Schauffele @ 6/1
1pt each-way Tommy Fleetwood @ 22/1
1pt each-way CT Pan @ 40/1
0.5pts each-way Harry Higgs @ 66/1
The Narashino Country Club in Japan could have an eternal place in golfing lore as the scene of Tiger Woods’ final, record-equalling PGA Tour victory if his busted body won’t allow him one more chapter.
In 2019 Woods anointed the birth of the ZOZO Championship by strolling home by three shots from Hideki Matsuyama with the rest well beaten off, just the result the sponsors were hoping for on the tour’s debut in the Land of the Rising Sun.
It was Tiger’s 82nd victory on the PGA Tour, the same as Sam Snead, and who knows if he will ever get the opportunity for that record-breaking 83rd?
This co-promotion with the Japan Golf Tour is back now at base in Chiba after the 2020 edition – Patrick Cantlay beat Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas by one at Sherwood – had to be switched to California because of Covid.
With a purse only a fraction short of $10m to be shared out among just 78 in this limited-field contest, the ZOZO deserves more strength-in-depth than it has but several good names including the in-form Sungjae Im, Kevin Na, Paul Casey, Shane Lowry and Lee Westwood who were on the original list have withdrawn.
It’s not only a limited field but the crowd is also limited, to 5000 a day, most of whom will be rooting for Masters champion Matsuyama, the only potential winner among the 19 Japanese players taking part.
He couldn’t quite give his legion of supporters the Olympic gold they craved in Tokyo but gave it a good shot until a couple of late errors took him out of the medals. He opened the new season with a sixth at the Fortinet and looks a cast-iron each-way investment with Fitzdares paying seven places.
The pressure is on again as he’s third favourite behind Open champion Collin Morikawa and Tokyo gold medalist Xander Schauffele.
The two Americans top the market at 6/1 as they have every right to be. Both played Narashino in 2019 with Schauffele doing better by finishing tenth to Morikawa’s 22nd but the latter has come a long way since. Narrow preference is for Schauffele but they might easily finish one-two.
Morikawa, who has a Japanese parent, finished with a tremendous flourish in Las Vegas on Sunday, shooting a 62 that propelled him from nowhere to setting the early target which only a revived Rory McIlroy was able to beat.
That CJ Cup triumph was a complete contrast to the last time we saw Rory highly emotional about his failure to deliver his Ryder Cup colleagues the points expected of him.
It’s a pity he’s not in Japan but that timely win will not only do him the world of good but could spur Europe’s best hope Tommy Fleetwood to a first victory of the year. It had been a disappointing 2021 for the Southport man until a recent flurry of good finishes in Europe hinted at better times ahead.
Punters have been coming in for Rickie Fowler after his best performance for a very long time last weekend. It has taken an age for swing changes to bed in but third place after leading going into Sunday suggests the corner has finally been turned. Even so, I need him to do it again before backing him.
For those looking for bigger prices try Taiwanese star CT Pan who won the AmEx tournament at the start of the year and surpassed himself on his last trip to Japan in taking Olympic bronze. He has started the new season impressively with sixth at the Fortinet and 11th in Mississippi.
Pan and heavyweight Harry Higgs, fourth in the USPGA Championship and ninth in Vegas at the weekend, could shake things up along with classy Chilean Joaquin Niemann, Will Zalatoris and Si Woo Kim.
A cloudy but rain-free four days is the forecast with temperatures around 18C – and you’ll have to set the alarm clock for 5am to watch it as that’s when Sky’s coverage begins.
THE MALLORCA OPEN
1.5pts each-way Pablo Larrazabal @ 28/1
1pt each-way Adri Arnaus @ 22/1
1pt each-way Sean Crocker @ 40/1
1pt each-way Alexander Bjork @ 22/1
0.5pts each-way Nacho Elvira @ 100/1
What would the European Tour do without Spain? The Mallorca Open, a late replacement for the Hassan II Trophy in Morocco, is the sixth tournament on Spanish soil this year and provides a 16/1 the field contest that’s a real brain-teaser.
The final leg of the Iberian Swing is being played at Santa Ponsa, one of 22 golf courses on this holiday-resort island, and as Seve Ballesteros and Miguel Angel Jimenez were the last two winners there in 1988 and 1998, there will be no shortage of Spaniards wanting to add their names to those two icons of Spanish golf.
Two of them, Pablo Larrazabal and Adri Arnaus, can fight out the finish and a third, Nacho Elvira, is suggested as best outsider at 100/1.
Elvira is one of only three members of this field who is a 2021 winner, having finally broken his duck in April at the Cazoo Open at Celtic Manor. He is unreliable, has done nothing of note since Cazoo but makes birdies for fun when in the right frame of mind and might just fancy tearing Santa Ponsa apart.
It is a flat, long-established course with its main feature, the tenth hole, one of the longest par fives on the circuit at 650 yards. That will challenge even Wilco Nienaber, the young South African who averages 323 off the tee.
Thomas Pieters and Andrew Johnston, neither of which are 2021 winners, head the betting almost by default. Santa Ponsa’s wide fairways will suit bombers Nienaber and Pieters but cunning veteran Larrazabal can outfox the pair of them.
He was 20th in the Andalucia Masters on Sunday but one-over is a good score by Valderrama standards and he was only four off second place.
This five-time winner, also a solid 20th in the previous week’s Spanish Open and 12th in Tenerife earlier in the year, should be seen to better advantage here. In a long career he has never won in front of a home crowd so victory here would mean a lot to him.
Arnaus suffered the predictable reaction to losing out to Rafa Cabrera Bello in a Madrid playoff when an overdue first victory was in touching distance until he faltered over the closing holes. He missed the cut at Valderrama but the extra two days could work to his advantage now, giving more time to get his mind straight. Some of his best golf before Madrid – fourth in Gran Canaria and eighth in Tenerife – came at home.
Sunday’s defeats from winning positions by Laurie Canter and Sebastian Soderberg were more recent and, with wounds still raw, that high-in-the-betting pair could struggle.
Go instead for Sweden’s Alexander Bjork whose fourth at Valderrama was his second good 2021 showing on Spanish soil following 12th in Tenerife. Two top-tens in Scandinavia in between are more positives, Bjork’s record shows more consistency than many in this flawed field.
If powerful young American Sean Crocker can get back to his late-summer form of second in Prague, fourth at Crans and ninth at Wentworth, he would have a serious shout, while Sam Horsfield has failed to build on last year’s two quick August wins but has loads of talent.
Pieters, Martin Kaymer, and Victor Dubuisson are former Ryder Cup players winless this year. This is as good a chance of getting that elusive W as they will ever have.
A little rain is forecast for Friday with round one the warmest day at 26C. Low 20s at the weekend.