ZOZO Championship 2021: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis

Xander Schauffele and caddie Austin Kaiser return to Japan this week for the ZOZO Championship for the first time since winning gold in the Olympics. Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

There’s money out there, they’re giving it away.

$9.95 million – the largest purse of the fall fling – to be exact. A 78-man field convenes in Japan this week for the ZOZO Championship, another no-cut affair with a mixture of PGA Tour regulars and stars from the Asian tours.

Unlike last week in Vegas, though, many of the world’s best are skipping the event at Narashino Country Club, a 7,044-yard, par 70 that has an eclectic mix of three par 5s and five par 3s and a par-34 front nine. Regardless, there’s a two-year exemption and all the usual perks to the winner.

Last time here, two years ago, Tiger Woods notched his 82nd Tour title and that feels like another lifetime ago. There’s no strokes gained data from that tournament, unfortunately, but Woods maneuvered his ball around the layout and rolled in putts on the pure bentgrass greens.

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It’s a classic parkland course: tree-lined Zoysia fairways, smallish, contoured greens protected by bunkers and water hazards in play on a half-dozen of the holes. The par 4s are either short or long with five measuring less than 425 yards and five longer than 486. Expect three of the par 3s to play in the 175-200 yard range.

The weather will be cool with high temperatures in the 60s and a light wind forecast. The course is expected to remain receptive throughout the week and yield abundant birdies. Woods shot 19 under to nip Hideki Matsuyama for the trophy in a finish that was unfortunately played in front of no gallery, pre COVID, due to a storm that ravaged the area the previous day.

To put it mildly, this was a tricky tournament to handicap. There’s the travel factor for those who played last week (it’s a 13-hour flight from Vegas). The unfamiliarity with the course (only 25 players in this year’s field competed in 2019). Several players who usually thrive on similar courses with narrow corridors simply aren’t in good form this week either, further complicating the decision making process.

We looked for birdie makers and those who have been strong on approach in recent events but not capitalized on the greens. Bentgrass putters and strong mid-length par-3 players were also prioritized.

Bargain Bin

  • Chesson Hadley, Sung Kang, Ryosuke Kinoshita, Troy Merritt, Roger Sloan.

Get ready to stay up late, if you like. As always, good luck.

Golfer power rankings

15. Mackenzie Hughes – Top 20 in scoring on shorter courses makes this a good course fit and his form is solid, finishing 27th or better in five of his last seven starts, dating to last summer. Best bentgrass putter in the field and iron play was better last week in a T-25 in Vegas.

14. Pat Perez – Over the last 24 rounds, the wily veteran leads the field in SG: Total, ranking top 10 in SG: Approach and SG: Putting. Missed the cut at Fortinet and skipped the two Vegas events so should be fresh. Excellent value in the back end of the lineup.

13. K.H. Lee – Top 10 in the field in fairways and greens over the last 24 rounds and has three top 25s in his last four starts as proof. Making his first appearance in this tournament but the 4.2 shots he gained on approach last week enhance his appeal among the narrow corridors of Narashino.

12. Tom Hoge – Gained at least three shots on approach in each of his last four tournaments and has been sharp around the greens in recent weeks. Has a solid track record in the fall. Needs to find a touch of magic on the putting surface for four days.

11. Emiliano Grillo – One of golf’s best iron players was also sharp around the greens in a T-18 last week at the CJ Cup. Another player with a solid money making record in the fall. Tied for 30th here in 2019.

10. Maverick McNealy – Short course specialist has seven top 30s in his last 10 starts on the PGA Tour. He’s going to win this season and his best opportunities are in weeks when many of the world’s best are resting. Birdie machine excels on 175-200-yard par 3s and has flourished on and around the greens lately.

9. Hideki Matsuyama – The ZOZO runner-up in 2019 has an underrated short game and a penchant for scoring low when the conditions are favorable. Gained 3.2 shots on approach at The Summit Club and lost 9.6 on the greens.

8. Erik van Rooyen – Bounced back from missing the cut at the Shriners to finish T-25 last week at The Summit Club, gaining 2.8 shots on approach. One of the best fairway finders in the field and rolls his best on bentgrass greens.

7. Rickie Fowler – He’s back. Is he back? It took only one week for the all of a sudden not so young Mr. Fowler to regain elite status in the eyes of those setting fantasy prices and gambling odds. We must admit it was an impressive display of ballstriking (nine shots gained Tee-to-Green), producing a third place finish despite putting worse than the field average. It was later than I thought when I first believed you were back, Rickie.

6. C.T. Pan – Skipped the Vegas doubleheader after a T-6 and T-11 in his first two tournaments in the 2021-22 season. Gained 3.1 shots on approach at Sanderson Farms and 4.6 at Fortinet. Tied for 59th in this tournament in 2019.

5. Alexander Noren – Shines on short, easy golf courses (fifth in SG: Total over the last 50 rounds) and putts great on bentgrass (second in field over last 50 rounds). Also top 10 in the field in short game. Had his worst approach tournament in a year at the CJ Cup.

4. Xander Schauffele – Still looking for his first PGA Tour victory and the limited-field standout was T-10 on this course in 2019. Solid tee-to-green last week just couldn’t make any progress on the greens in a T-18. Important for Schauffele to hoist another trophy before the end of the year.

3. Joaquin Niemann – Recovered from a rare poor driving week at TPC Summerlin but the putter let him down in the CJ Cup. Should be able to navigate the shorter par 4s with less than driver if he chooses. Just two top 10s since his back-to-back runner-up finishes last January. He’s due for another one.

2. Jhonnatan Vegas – Over the last 50 rounds, leads the field in Birdies or Better Gained. Made his first start of the season last week at The CJ Cup and resumed his stellar play, gaining 5.1 shots Tee-to-Green to finish 14th. Last time here excellent ballstrikers who don’t putt so well populated the leaderboard.

1. Collin Morikawa – Tied for 22nd at Narashino in 2019 and gained 4.9 shots on approach for the tournament (ho-hum) charging to second place last week. Precision is rewarded on this layout and not many have more control of their golf ball. Can he putt well two weeks in a row? (3.6 shots gained on his home Summit).

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