Jeff Curry, USA Today Sports. Pictured: Justin Thomas
- The CJ Open takes place this weekend from Nine Bridges Golf Course on Jeju Island in South Korea.
- Justin Thomas is the defending champion and the favorite to win the tournament at +500.
- Hideki Matsuyama (+1250) is my favorite pick this week while Byeong-hun An (+4000) is a great value play.
I’ll get to picks for this week’s CJ Cup at Nine Bridges soon, but first, a seemingly random request: Let’s talk about Ernie Els.
The Big Easy owns four major championships. He’s claimed more than five dozen professional titles and has been the world’s No. 1-ranked player. He’s logged air miles like a modern-day Gary Player and still boasts the smoothest swing this side of Fred Couples.
Fresh off a T-43 at last week’s CIMB Classic, Els is competing this week in South Korea, where the final round will start one day after the Hall of Famer turns 49 years old. It’s been more than a half-decade since Els’ last win and more than two years since his last top-10 in a PGA Tour event. He’s compiled a mind-boggling 30 missed cuts globally since that time.
All of which begs one simple question: What is he doing?
With just over $49 million in PGA Tour earnings alone (eighth on the all-time list), Els theoretically has enough cash to last him through this lifetime and many more thereafter. He’s been a member of the HOF for seven years already. There’s nothing left o prove.
In another era — even if he was born just 10-15 years earlier — Els might have twice the number of major titles. Instead, he’s often remembered for near-misses, both on the leaderboards (six runner-up finishes among his 23 top-fives in majors) and on the greens (his opening-hole six-putt at the 2016 Masters is just as cringeworthy as it was that day).
And yet, the captain for next year’s International team at the Presidents Cup is still competing full-time, although his 22 starts this year are his fewest since 1991, save for an injury-plagued 2005 campaign.
Don’t get me wrong: None of this should serve as some sort of disdain or castigation toward Els for his decision to continue playing so much at this point in his career, despite such a lack of success. I’m not insisting he should hang up the spikes and wait for senior circuit eligibility, nor would I ever suggest that.
In fact, it’s just he opposite.
Els deserves to be celebrated. For a guy whose game has clearly dropped several notches and could easily be unmotivated to continue teeing it up, he’s too often a footnote in weekly fields, raising the profile with the addition of a major winner, though mired as the world’s 613th-ranked player.
On the heels of Phil Mickelson recently revealing that he’ll play a more limited schedule next year, Els keeps chugging along, even though his game pales in comparison to those peers against whom he’s competed for so many years.
No, I’m not picking Els to win this week’s tourney, but I’d like nothing more than to be proven wrong if he can somehow unexpectedly put it all together and give it a run in the 78-man field.
At some point, he deserves to be rewarded with one final Sunday success, clutching a trophy on the final green in the impending twilight. At a continuing elevated price in the books, even a small wager on the near-50-year-old would be a nice reward for those who have supported him all these years, too.
On to the picks for the CJ Cup, where I’m giving an edge to three groups of players.
First, unlike last week, when I didn’t necessarily like anyone making the long journey from Napa to Malaysia, this week I’ll give a small advantage to those who did play last week.
I look at it similarly to the way I do the Sony Open in January — those who competed the previous week are already attuned to the time change and have shaken off the jetlag.
Secondly, I also like those who follow the trend of last week’s champion, Marc Leishman. The Aussie had enjoyed a solid year, with five previous top-10s, but was probably hungrier for a win than some of those in the field who’d already claimed one. I’ll be similarly identifying players this week who have that desire to salvage a year that hasn’t included a victory so far.
And lastly, no longshots. Of all the have-and-have-not fields of the year, this one might be the have-and-have-not-iest. I love long odds more than most people and usually can’t resist a few big prices, but this tourney is more top-heavy than a… OK, let’s just say it’s top-heavy.
My list for the CJ Cup begins with a player who appears ripe for a triumphant performance.