ZOZO Championship betting preview and tips from Ben Coley

Tiger Woods is competing in the Zozo Championship
Tiger Woods is competing in the Zozo Championship

Keep stakes to a minimum is the chief advice from Ben Coley as he previews the ZOZO Championship, a brand new addition to the PGA Tour schedule.

Recommended bets

1pt e.w. Marc Leishman at 45/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

1pt e.w. Ian Poulter at 66/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

1pt e.w. Sung Kang at 150/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

First came the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, then the CJ Cup in Korea, and now the PGA Tour further expands its Asia portfolio to Japan with the inaugural edition of the ZOZO Championship, another limited-in-numbers, no-cut tournament with several of the world's best players in attendance.

The field is a little stronger than last week, with the likes of Tony Finau, Adam Scott and Xander Schauffele adding depth, Tiger Woods adding intrigue and Rory McIlroy arguably representing a more-dangerous-on-paper second-favourite than a post-op Brooks Koepka. In total, 11 of the world's top 20 are in attendance, including the two biggest names in the sport and by far the best player in Japan, and it's therefore an ideal start from an organisational perspective.

From our perspective, it's difficult to imagine a more challenging tournament to assess, without simply increasing the size and strength of the field. We are in every sense breaking new ground here, at Accordia Golf Narashino, and confidence can only be limited.

What we do know is that this course has a couple of interesting features, not least two greens per hole - a Japanese tradition which was born out of a need to maintain different grasses for changing weather, but has now been rendered less important with agronomic and agrostological advances.

We'll see both in play at the fourth this week (though not together, for those who remember that PowerPlay Golf experiment at Celtic Manor some years ago) and possibly elsewhere, but from a more practical perspective the message to take from this is that individual greens are small on what is a tree-lined par 70, where five par-threes and three par-fives break from what we'd consider the norm.

While the layout is new, Monday's skins game involving Woods, McIlroy, Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama at least allowed us a look at it, and the main takeaway from my perspective was that greens were soft. Typically, that's a surefire way of making life easy for the world's best players, but cool, breezy and at times damp conditions suggest we might be in for something tougher, especially as that high-profile quartet hardly set the place alight.

Finding an angle here is very difficult even taking all this into account, and the staking plan reflects that, with Marc Leishman selected tentatively for the same reasons which justified his inclusion in the CJ Cup.

Essentially, Leishman is dangerous in events such as these and he tends to round out the year well, so with a Presidents Cup in Australia on the horizon it would be no big surprise were he to follow up last year's victory in the CIMB Classic.

That was his third no-cut victory, and his best form this year came courtesy of third place in the no-cut WGC-FedEx St. Jude, so while he was a little disappointing in Korea there's little to be lost in giving him another chance - particularly at a bigger price.

Marc Leishman with the CIMB Classic trophy
Marc Leishman with the CIMB Classic trophy

For all the guesswork involved here, Leishman has some strong form under soft conditions stretching from his near-miss in the 2015 Open Championship to victory at the BMW Championship, and if this is target golf then that CIMB Classic romp may yet prove a decent pointer.

I expect it'll be more attritional and the weather conditions might just separate the field a little, so it's encouraging that he boasts such a strong record in the Open where breeze and chilly mornings are part and parcel of the challenge.

Just how valuable par-three performance proves to be remains to be seen, but it certainly goes down as a potentially interesting avenue to explore and there's nobody in this field who has been a better player of the short holes than Leishman in recent years. In fact, you have to go back to the 2016 season for the last time he produced an over-par scoring average, which is really quite impressive.

Throw in the fact that he's notoriously up and down, which means his third place in the Safeway Open a few weeks ago can be as reliable a guide as last week's ho-hum effort, and the Aussie just has to be worth sticking with. He's a classier player than his price implies and 45/1 is too big to turn down.

Of those at the front of the market, the most tempting are McIlroy, Matsuyama, Gary Woodland and Woods himself, the latter having shown enough on Monday to suggest his latest surgery went well and that he's ready to play himself into the sort of form which would justify self-selection for the Presidents Cup.

Woodland also has that goal in mind and has plenty of form in Asia, much like Leishman. I just felt that if they had the same chance last week, according to the market, better in the circumstances to go with the player who has drifted because things didn't go so well than the one who has effectively hardened, allowing for field strength, for a never-nearer third. Besides which, for all that Woodland is versatile, taking a par-five off him and adding a par-three would certainly shift things more in favour of the selection.

As for Matsuyama, who shared third with Woodland on Jeju Island, so much depends on whether playing on home soil helps or hinders his performance. On the one hand he's bound to feel a certain level of comfort as a man who has struggled to learn English, but on the other he's a fairly timid character and I'm of the view that the intense Japanese media focus has hurt him at times over the last few seasons.

If he does end a two-year winless run in style then good on him, but I'm not prepared to be taking short prices with such concerns, while there was just a hint from McIlroy that he'd have to be more defensive off the tee than he'd like. I'm not sure it's the time to steam in at single-figure prices.

Instead, I'm relying on Ian Poulter's fabulous end-of-year record as he looks towards the 2020 Ryder Cup and surely his last chance to do battle on US soil.

Poulter's very first win came at the end of October back in 2000, and ever since then he's proven to be one of the most reliable players around this time of year, one which sees some switch off and others simply run out of gas.

The evolution of golf's calendar has moved the goalposts somewhat - everyone is now expected to play year-round - but Poulter remains of most interest as we edge towards Christmas. Eight of his 17 career wins have come in the October to December window, and his average finishing position over these months is around 25th, versus 50th during summer.

This of course reflects field strengths to a large degree, but it also underlines his effectiveness in Asia as well as his ability to dig deep into those mental reserves which have been apparent since he was an amateur nobody thought capable of making it to the top.

Poulter has won in Hong Kong, China, Singapore and here in Japan, where he's played four events and always made the top-10, so there really shouldn't have been any surprise in his improvement in form to finish 16th in South Korea last week.

That performance needs improving on again, but he has since described his game as "very close" and at around the 66/1 mark, on a course and under conditions which may suit the Europeans more than the Americans, this Ryder Cup behemoth can take a big step towards a seat on the plane next September.

Going back to the home contingent, my first instinct here was to put up Ryo Ishikawa, who has roared back to life this year with a couple of wins and earned his place in the field by right, having previously been offered a sponsors' exemption.

This dynamite putter, prolific in Japan since he was a teenager, has talent by the bucketload and unlike many of his compatriots he knows he can mix it with the world's best, having gone close a couple of times during an extended stay on the PGA Tour.

I've no doubt Ishikawa will work his way back to the US in time, and before that he has the incentive of the Presidents Cup as well as the world rankings to keep him motivated. He played the best golf in the entire field over the weekend of the Japan Open last week and is hard to leave out at 125/1, but there's no denying he needs to step up again to win.

Adam Scott finished fifth there and should go well here, too, while Shugo Imahira, at 52nd in the world and therefore the second-best Japanese player according to the rankings, should see this as a dream opportunity to take the next big step forward in his burgeoning career.

Imahira has been in excellent form in Japan for well over a year now and sat atop the money list until last week. He's second for greens in regulation and in par-three scoring, and this 27-year-old seems capable of graduating beyond his home circuit sooner rather than later.

As we saw last week, with the classy Ben An and veteran KJ Choi by far the pick of the Koreans, those from the local circuit are typically outclassed. However, Imahira has some noteworthy international experience now and from limited starts has twice been in contention at halfway this year, first in the Sony Open and then in the strong WGC-St Jude.

He's respected at 100/1 and could be worth support in the first-round leader market from the first group off the 10th tee, but again there's that nagging doubt as to how a player like him will cope with the limelight should he get off to a solid start.

As such, I'll stick to players with proven PGA Tour credentials and make Sung Kang my final selection.

Back-to-back top-30 finishes mean Kang arrives in decent form and he was also fourth on the Korean Tour recently. It was a pair of 68s which saw him climb from outside the top 50 to 26th last weekend and before that, a second-round 63 at the Shriners certainly caught the eye.

All of that puts him onto the radar, but it's Kang's form at certain venues and under conditions similar to those expected this week which really piques my interest.

Sung Kang with his first PGA Tour trophy
Sung Kang with his first PGA Tour trophy

He first came close to winning in Houston, when reeled in by Russell Henley on a golf course which played very soft, and then later that summer became internet famous when fifth in the pouring rain at TPC Potomac, his caddie having neglected to pack wet-weather gear.

The latter is a tough par 70 with bentgrass greens, so Kang's overall record there (6-5-3) might be a decent pointer, while I also like the fact he whizzed round Monterey and its smaller-than-average putting surfaces in 60 blows a few years ago.

Seventh at Bethpage - another rain-softened course - stands out as high-class 2019 form, and having become a PGA Tour winner one week earlier in the Byron Nelson he is probably a little better than his price suggests here.

And that rather sums things up. I can find no strong angle and there was temptation to recommend nothing. The main advice is to tread carefully and either watch this with a view to the future, or accept that it may never be a particularly engaging event for those betting from a half a world away.

Posted at 1230 BST on 22/10/19.

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