Ben Coley previews the Zozo Championship, where Tiger Woods defends his title at a course he knows and loves.
It's a mark of how much of a non-factor he's been throughout 2020, that 2019 Masters champion Tiger Woods can be backed at 33/1 to defend his title in the Zozo Championship - and yet he demands consideration now that the event has been redirected to Sherwood Country Club.
This short, turning, tricky golf course hosted Tiger's World Challenge from 2000 to 2013, and the star attraction won it five times. He finished second on five other occasions, too, and though the event was only 18 players deep, all were world-class. Woods simply knew how to score here better than anyone, and it's easy to see why: above all else, his iron play and tactical brain made him what he was, and those assets appear vital at this Jack Nicklaus design.
There is a chance he writes a new chapter in his remarkable story by passing Sam Snead and becoming the most decorated player in PGA Tour history. It would be fitting to do so here, where his five previous titles do not count towards his 82 total, and it wouldn't have taken much more on the price to chance him. Woods has indeed been a non-factor ever since finishing ninth at Torrey Pines in January, but even that effort - his first after a long break, at a course he's dominated in the past - can be viewed as a positive.
Ultimately, his game has appeared to regress slowly since returning in July, and there are too many unknowns. Still, it could pay to be alive to the potential of history repeating, whether it's course or tournament. In this event last year, Woods returned from two months away, having been in shoddy form when last seen, and won impressively. Those with an eye on the in-running betting have been warned.
Whenever we're seeking to profile a course at which Woods has been omnipotent, it's vital to dig deeper; to look at who chased him home, or who won when he didn't. Doing so reveals plenty about Sherwood, because names like Graeme McDowell, Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson pop up alongside Luke Donald, Matt Kuchar, and others of a similar skill set. By contrast, it's rare to see someone who has built a career on long driving.
These players suddenly seem remarkably old-fashioned in a grip-and-rip sport, but their methodology should still work at Sherwood. For all there are five par-fives (and five par-threes), the consensus is that thought and precision are needed off the tee, and that - in keeping with most Nicklaus designs - the challenge really begins from the second shot onwards. That's perhaps why this collection of excellent wedge players who all putt well have thrived.
In today's game, there's arguably nobody better in these departments than WEBB SIMPSON, and this is one place where he can be fancied to topple the likes of Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, and Xander Schauffele.
Probably my biggest regret of the PGA Tour summer was not putting up Simpson in the RBC Heritage, where his quality approach play and deadly putting were so much more valuable assets than they can be when driving it long is the starting point. He was superb there, winning at a course where he'd previously lost a play-off, and it's form which carries real significance out here on the opposite coast.
It was McDowell who once beat Simpson in a play-off at Harbour Town, Furyk has also won there, and both Johnson and Donald have been bridesmaids - the latter a remarkable five times. All told, of the 10 players who have won the World Challenge at Sherwood, eight have a top-three finish in the Heritage. The exceptions are Woods, who played there only once, and Padraig Harrington, who did so only twice.
That's a significant correlation and it won't be difficult to understand it once coverage begins on Thursday. Sherwood isn't quite as claustrophobic, but Harrington used to say it made him scared (which he insisted was a positive, in the world of the madcap Irishman) and there's certainly real definition off every tee box. And while Nicklaus is only credited as a consultant on Pete Dye's Harbour Town project, Dye says he was so much more than that.
Gladly, the speculation can end there because we know Simpson can play this course. He's one of just 12 players in the field to have done so in competition, and his performance in 2013 (73-71-69-68 for fifth) reflects his increasing comfort levels across three appearances (13-7-5). Again we have to acknowledge that fifth place came in a field of 18, but of those dozen with course form, he's third in adjusted scoring average - Sherwood definitely works.
Simpson's career got rolling on the east coast, where he's from, but he's since won a major in California plus titles in Nevada and Arizona, and there are no concerns over how well suited he is by the challenge ahead. Form-wise he comes here on the back of eighth place in the Shriners, his first start since the US Open, and small improvements with his approach play and putting should see him in the thick of things as he so often is.
As you'll have perhaps noted by the staking plan, I like the shape of this market - which is why there are six selections in a reduced field. Instead of looking to secure some kind of minor return for a place for Simpson, then, I'll split stakes to include COLLIN MORIKAWA as part of a win-only attack on the favourites.
Ever since he turned professional, Morikawa's iron play has been of a standard sufficient to draw comparisons with Woods - and already, his two full-strength PGA Tour wins have been at courses where Woods also has titles. Clearly, he isn't going to go on and match Tiger from a numbers perspective, but it's possible their careers are somewhat in parallel, because their games appear to be.
That comment applies as much to Morikawa's maturity and mindset as it does his approach play, and it's why I don't believe he is suffering, or will suffer, much of a post-major slump. We've seen it happen to many before - players who reach the summit and don't know what to do next - but this youngster will simply have his eyes set on the Masters, and then the Masters again; playing in Ryder Cups and reaching the top of the rankings. This year is the beginning.
Another feature of his wins has been Nicklaus, designer of Montreux and Muirfield Village, the two courses at which Morikawa won prior to the PGA Championship, and the latter is another intriguingly strong course correlation. Woods of course won there five times, but it's the rest who really help build this association. Of the nine other Sherwood champions, four also triumphed at Muirfield Village, four placed, and the other hadn't played there until this summer.
In a nutshell, I think Morikawa is going to love this place. Like Simpson, he's a strong par-five player despite his relative lack of power, and they're just about the two most accurate drivers among the game's elite. There's a slight worry that Morikawa's putter could let him down, but he's at his best on bentgrass and this of course is a home game of sorts for the Californian, who won on his last visit to the state having putted beautifully.
Crucially, after somehow missing the cut despite shooting six-under at the Shriners, he was back on track last week. Morikawa finished 12th in the CJ Cup, producing his best tee-to-green figures since the PGA Championship, and his best approach play since that win at Muirfield Village. That he did so at a quirky, penal and slightly bizarre course is all the more encouraging, and my suspicion is Sherwood will bring about further improvement.
Harris English caught the eye after a slow start last week and is respected, though his record in California isn't especially strong bar some good efforts at Torrey Pines. Viktor Hovland played well at Pebble Beach in the US Open and has Muirfield Village form so would be preferred, but MATT FITZPATRICK is the pick of those around the 35/1 mark.
It's no doubt been a frustrating run from the Englishman, his last three weeks a microcosm of the last two years. On the latter, he's been a luckless and sometimes careless runner-up on several occasions since chasing home Aaron Rai in Hong Kong in 2018; on the former, he's been bang in the mix at Wentworth and the CJ Cup since finding himself on the wrong side of the draw in Scotland, both times failing to do himself justice.
Those frustrations were revealed in some choice words last Friday but I don't mind that from a quiet but hugely competitive youngster, who knows he's capable of even more. Key to his chances of competing is the right course and, just as Wentworth and Shadow Creek offered something for the accurate, so too will Sherwood Country Club.
Fitzpatrick ranked second and third in driving accuracy across his last two starts, but it's the improvement in his approach play which really catches the eye. He was poor in that regard in Scotland, much better in Wentworth, and then took another step forward to rank seventh in Vegas, where again it was the odd clumsy shot which cost him.
Some day soon it's all going to come together, and with third place at Muirfield Village to go with three good performances at Harbour Town - known to be his favourite PGA Tour venue - the time could be now. He's won at the end of a four-week stretch before and said he felt great last week, despite the travel, and his only excuse is a lack of course knowledge.
That shouldn't be a problem given that it applies to the vast majority of the field, and this could be one of the courses - like Harbour Town, Bay Hill, Southwind, Muirfield Village - where he proves particularly dangerous. Providing he continues to play as he has for the last fortnight, I suspect he'll go really well.
Sticking with the theme of shorter hitters who can win this via their wedges, CAMERON SMITH keeps his place in the staking plan following a frustrating share of 11th last week. Smith broke 70 on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and started well on Friday, only to collapse to a round of 74 which ultimately may have cost him a place.
Overall though the evidence is mounting that he's close to his early-season best. After a strong weekend at the BMW Championship saw him climb 35 places in a field of 70, he's started well at the TOUR Championship, stuck around on the wrong course at the US Open, shot a second-round 63 on his way to 24th at the Shriners, and improved again for 11th last week - his best result since winning the Sony Open.
Statistically, his approach play has been strong throughout this run and he remains one of the best wedge players on the circuit, just as he is around the greens (11th and ninth on last two starts). The putter has been solid for three events now - 11th last week, 18th at the US Open and 32nd between the two - and he only needs to stay in the conversation off the tee to be dangerous.
That will likely determine how successful he is this week, but Sherwood is shorter and more about placement than almost everywhere he's played this summer. The hope is then he can focus on hitting fairways and get to work thereafter, in the process demonstrating that his confidence is returning. With stacks of form in these late-year, no-cut events - including in elite fields - he looks a big each-way player.
Marc Leishman played much better last week and was considered again. He's got plenty of form in California and at Muirfield Village, and the classy Australian looks like he might be ready to get competitive for the first time since winning at Torrey Pines back at the start of the year.
He's the last name off the list, just ahead of Jordan Spieth. Yes, I know, but Spieth shot 69-67 over the weekend of the CJ Cup, gaining strokes with his ball-striking, and very few people appear to have noticed or given credit for that. It's a small, positive step which isn't quite enough to give him the benefit of what's now considerable doubt, but should he take a couple more this week there's a tournament he quite likes on the horizon.
Instead though I'm siding with PAUL CASEY and KEVIN NA to complete the staking plan.
Casey has to leave behind a very poor week in the CJ Cup, but it's the only real blot on the copybook since the PGA Championship, his last start in California, where he chased home Morikawa.
Remember it was our first look at Shadow Creek on the PGA Tour and to my eye it seemed like a love it or loathe it course. Perhaps Casey joined me in the latter camp and even then, his third round (67) and much of his final round (finished birdie-birdie after quality approach shots) offered some positives.
Rewind to that PGA Championship effort and it came out of nowhere, as he'd been near last the previous week at Southwind, so it could pay to focus on the positives - especially at 80/1. Casey, after all, went off shorter for a full-field major championship just last month.
The argument in his favour centres around Sherwood, where he boasts some eye-catching form. In fact, in finishing third on his last two visits (2010 and 2011), Casey played the best golf of anyone over the final 54 holes each time. In 2011 he was stone last in a world-class field of 18 after round one, and then shot 12-under thereafter, the best golf by two to Zach Johnson, and five better than the next best - Tiger Woods.
It was a virtual carbon copy of 2010, when he was three better than McDowell and four better than Woods over the final three rounds, and both slow starts can be excused. One came after he arrived late from the Middle East, and the other was his first golf in a month.
A winner at the Nicklaus-designed Gleneagles as well as another of his courses in Asia, Casey was also twice runner-up at Dove Mountain in Arizona. More to the point, his two wins at Copperhead showcase his love for an undulating, turning, tree-lined course as does his match play win at Wentworth back in the day.
All we really have to do is forgive the CJ Cup (he broke 70 twice in missing the cut at the shootout that was the Shriners) and he becomes interesting. He will need to leave that effort well behind, but has done it before and is value to do so again at 80/1 in places, and anything 66/1 and upwards.
Finally, this looks a good course for Na and, strange as it still feels to say, his winning record makes him the pick of those at three-figure prices.
Na has gone close at Riviera several times, lost a play-off at Silverado, and won in California on the Korn Ferry Tour. It's the state in which he grew up and he's been very effective back home, including at Pebble Beach where he boasts a couple of top-fives and a good effort back in February.
As for the course correlations mentioned earlier, he lost a play-off at Muirfield Village and was ninth there this summer, while he has five top-10 finishes at Harbour Town, and has always played well when visiting the Nicklaus-designed Montreux.
Clearly, he's going to struggle when power is important but it really shouldn't be here - at least not unreasonably so - and there's been just enough in his play lately to suggest he's capable of capitalising. Na was seventh through three rounds of the Shriners and defied a shocking start with an excellent second round last week, all while struggling with the putter, which is usually a strength.
Bentgrass is his best surface (FantasyNational has him as the best putter in the field on bentgrass over a 50-round view) so a turnaround is more than possible and having grown close to Tiger over the years, he'd dearly love to succeed him at one of Woods' favourite spots.
Ultimately, this is a rare opportunity to tackle elite company on a level playing field, and I can see him taking advantage.
Posted at 1200 BST on 20/10/20
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