Sobel’s 2019 Zozo Championship Betting Guide: Fade Tiger, Follow Tony in Japan
Thomas J. Russo, USA Today Sports. Pictured: Tony Finau
Welcome to Zozo Championship week, the inaugural Japan-based PGA Tour event whose field list reads simultaneously like a who’s who of elite players and a who’s he of, well, not-so-elite players.
There’s Rory McIlroy and Rikuya Hoshino, Tiger Woods and Adam Schenk, Justin Thomas and Shaun Norris.
Of all the have-and-have-not tournaments in the world, this one immediately ranks amongst the most have-and-have-not-iest, as officials should probably place a literal line of demarcation on the practice range to separate the two factions.
As if the differentiation of names wasn’t mind-boggling enough, let’s check out the alternate list to see which players didn’t make it: In order, there’s Jhonattan Vegas, Branden Grace, Charley Hoffman, Tyrrell Hatton, Chesson Hadley, Brian Stuard, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Cameron Smith and Danny Willett. That’s a hell of a group of guys who got shut out.
While it’s hard to imagine each of them biding their time on the putting green, waiting for someone to stub a toe, there’s at least something funny (or fishy) about the world’s 49th-ranked player being the fourth alternate in a 78-man field.
Let’s get back to those who are actually competing this week. We were afforded a first glance at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club during Monday’s televised Skins Game. At right around 7,000 yards, this one won’t be confused for a U.S. Open setup anytime soon. Without much length or rough, long hitters should be able to punch their golf balls with less than driver at times, while ball-strikers should thrive.
On the heels of Thomas winning the CJ Cup at 20-under, I can’t foresee this week’s champion not similarly reaching that number, at the very least.
This one is admittedly more of a guessing game than any other week, so I’ll weigh talent, form and motivation a little bit more than any analytics we think might correlate well here.
One player to win the tournament.
Tony Finau (+2800)
After I listed Thomas in this spot at +650 last week, one Twitter follower replied with a salient question: “How are you gonna support JT as an outright play? Those odds are never worth it!” I agree — and I wrote as much, saying that you’d have to eat those low odds if you wanted to back him last week (which I didn’t).
The point is, picking a winner and picking a favorite bet are mutually exclusive. The odds aren’t as low for Finau, who could be a nice play this week. Still with just one career win, I’ve got to believe he’s more motivated than some of his fellow competitors to capture a title and kick his career into the next gear.
Potential selections for one-and-done options.
Ryo Ishikawa (+12500)
Granted, it would be an extreme prognostication to choose the former Bashful Prince phenom to win this tournament, but years after we once assumed he’d have hit it big by now, a solid performance certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
This summer, Ishikawa won Japan Tour titles in back-to-back starts (albeit seven weeks apart) and has since posted results of 13-5-6-3-47-26-12. Couple that with the fact that you’re not burning a guy in OAD formats whom you’d use anywhere else and he could be an intriguing play in his home country.
One player to finish top-five.
Matthew Fitzpatrick (+900)
Two weeks ago, I backed Fitz at the Italian Open, only to see him get leapfrogged by Bernd Wiesberger down the stretch. That only emboldens my original thought then, though: He’s ready to win very soon.
The young Englishman now owns three runner-up finishes in his last 10 global starts and five total since his last victory just over 12 months ago. Sometimes those close calls are the byproduct of poor play under pressure, other times they’re simply bad luck. I’ll largely go with the latter for Fitzpatrick, though I’ll hedge it here and guess that he’ll at least come close once again.
One player to finish top-10.
Andrew Putnam (+450)
I’m ripping this one straight from the text of last week’s CJ Cup preview: “Putnam has proven over the past year that his estimable game will travel. During these 12 months, he’s been T-21 at the BMW PGA Championship, T-32 at The Open Championship, T-4 at the Scottish Open, T-17 at the Dunlop Phoenix and T-4 at the WGC-HSBC Champions.”
We can now throw in a T-20 at the CJ, just the latest evidence that Putnam enjoys plying his craft around the world. Don’t be surprised if he bests that performance by at least 10 spots this week.
One player to finish top-20.
Kevin Streelman (+600)
Coming off a T-12 last week, Streelman is a guy who can still play solid golf on the right kind of course – and this one could be right.
A tree-lined, shorter track should fit perfectly with the 40-year-old’s metrics. There aren’t many guys who have decent numbers for a top-20 in a 78-man field, but I like this price for Streelman after he cashed this bet last week.
DFS Free Bingo Square
A safe plug-and-play option for DFS.
Adam Hadwin (DK $8,100; FD $8,900) and Chez Reavie (DK $7,400; FD $8,600)
That’s right, folks: It’s a two-for-one special this week! If this track does indeed play into the hands of the accurate ball-strikers, then Hadwin and Reavie should own a ton of value, while serving as potentially low-owned options who repeatedly set themselves up for birdie opportunities. We might be able to count their combined bogey total on one hand by Sunday evening.
A lower-priced option for DFS.
Chan Kim (DK $6,300; FD $7,200)
Call me jaded, but I’ve spent enough time on practice ranges at professional events that there’s very little which can get me to stop and take notice anymore. And yet, it was at Erin Hills two years ago when this happened twice before the opening round ever started. The first was Cameron Champ. I’d heard stories, but the speed he was generating on the range made me – and everyone else in the area – stop and watch for a while.
The second was Kim, a broad-shouldered ball-striker who was born in South Korea, grew up in Hawaii and played his college golf at Arizona State. I’m a bit surprised that at 29 he still hasn’t matured into a bigger name in today’s game, but at No. 1 on the current Japan Tour money list, that might be happening soon. With so many top-end plays in DFS this week, it might be smart to roster a guy near the bottom of the list and Kim is the best option of the bunch.
One player to post the low score Thursday.
Joaquin Niemann (+5000)
So far this season, Niemann has competed in four events. His opening-round scores have been 65-68-69-65, a scoring average of 66.75 which ranks him fifth on the PGA Tour. Truth be told, I like him for the second, third and final rounds this week, as well, but I especially like the Chilean to get off to a quick start once again.
One player who should beat comparable players.
The best thing about taking Hovland in full-tourney H2H wagers is that his final-round play is usually so stellar that you’ll have a chance to cash, even if he starts Sunday a handful of strokes behind his competition.
In his pro debut at last year’s Travelers Championship, Hovland posted a closing 73. Since then? He’s played a half-dozen Sunday rounds on the PGA Tour: 64-65-64-65-64-69. Not to read too much into a small sample size, but this shows he plays well when the pressure is greatest and even if there’s little pressure and he’s well out of contention, he doesn’t pack it in and cruise toward the clubhouse.
The Big Fade
One top player to avoid at this tournament.
Tiger Woods (+3000)
I should probably rename this category for this week only, because I don’t hate Tiger this week by any means. Coming off a two-month break during which he underwent another knee surgery, though, he showed in the Skins Game that there could be some rust. I expect this to be one of those very Tiger-like performances, where he limps into the opening round (no, not literally) with a 70, then follows with scores of 68-65-67 for a four-day total that doesn’t sniff the leaders, but shows enough promise on the weekend that we can have reason for optimism afterward.
My favorite non-PGA Tour play of the week.
Jeongeun Lee6 to win the BMW Ladies Championship (+1500)
The Zozo isn’t the only inaugural event on the golf calendar this week; in fact, it’s not even the only one on the golf-crazy continent of Asia. The LPGA heads to Korea for the first playing of the BMW and I’m going with a countrywoman to pick off the title.
Jin Young Ko, the current world No. 1 who leads just about every results-oriented category on the circuit this year, is the favorite – and for good reason. She’s returning to her home country this week, as well, where she’s already competed three times this year.
Instead, I’m backing the reigning U.S. Women’s Open champ in Lee, who enters a bit off the radar after a T-20 last week in Shanghai. Just behind Ko in most of those major categories, she should own some big-time motivation for a few different reasons this week. Since that Women’s Open victory, she owns a pair of runner-up finishes, but is still seeking that next win. She’s played too well this year to not get it soon.