Sobel: Matsuyama, Noren Among My Favorite Plays for the CJ Cup

Sobel: Matsuyama, Noren Among My Favorite Plays for the CJ Cup article feature image

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.


Hideki Matsuyama (+1250)

For much of 2018, Matsuyama was an enigma, enduring combinations of injury and inconsistency. After starting the year at No. 5 in the world, he’s dropped to 22nd now, but that doesn’t tell the entire story.

In the FedEx Cup playoffs, he finished 15-4-15-4 to show he could be ready for another late run like that of two years ago, when he posted four wins and a runner-up in his final five starts. He’s my favorite play this week.

Justin Thomas (+500)

Two years ago, JT closed out a second consecutive win in Malaysia. Now he’s going for two in a row in South Korea. As I wrote last week, I don’t make a habit of betting players at 5-to-1 pre-tournament, but if you want to start off DFS lineups or fill out one-and-done pools with the defending champ, I don’t hate it.

Billy Horschel (+2400)

Considering he was fresh off top-three results in the last three events he finished, last week’s T-33 was an obvious disappointment, but don’t write off Billy Ho too quickly. He has a history of stepping on the gas pedal when he’s playing well and I’m willing to chalk up last week’s result as an outlier.

Cameron Smith (+2600)

As I wrote last week, I like Aussies this time of year, as their body clocks are attuned to the impending summer. But there’s even more reason to like Smith, whose wedge game should again thrive on a short par-72 track.


Gary Woodland (+3000)

His last five starts, in order to the most recent: 48th-24th-12th-11th-5th. Trying to figure out the next number in that equation sounds like an eighth-grade math problem, which automatically means I can’t answer it. But it should be a pretty low one.

Alex Noren (+3500)

What I like most about Noren is less about recent form and more about overall history. He owns a terrific conversion rate when in contention. If he climbs onto the leaderboard entering Sunday, I like his chances to get it done.

Emiliano Grillo (+3500)

At 49th in the world after a T-2 last week, Grillo should be fueled by the knowledge that top-50 at the end of this year will qualify for next year’s Masters – and he still needs that exemption.

Byeong-hun An (+3500)

There are 13 players from South Korea in this week’s field, which should offer a little extra motivation. None of ‘em are better than An, who keeps knocking on the door for his initial PGA Tour victory. If Matsuyama is my favorite play, then An is my favorite value pick.

Sungjae Im (+4000)

Yet another native son, Im is already making a name for himself on the big tour. Following last season’s money title (by nearly a full $100,000), the big-hitting Im finished T-4 in his season debut at the Safeway Open.

Kyle Stanley (+5000)

A ball-striker who clearly fits the bill of a player who played well enough to win this year, but is still hungry enough to claim one. This is a nice value price for Stanley.