PGA Tour Picks: Zozo Championship

The last time Xander Schauffele was in Japan, he left for home with the Olympic Gold Medal in his pocket after winning by one stroke at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Saitama in August.

The 27-year-old Schauffele (pictured), from La Jolla and San Diego State will be back this week as one of the favorites in the Zozo Championship at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club in Chiba, Japan.

“The fans will be the ones who also sort of make it special or make me relive my good moments,” said the fifth-ranked Schauffele. “I remember the first time we played the Zozo, I was paired with (Justin Thomas) and Rory (McIlroy), and it was like five to eight deep on the first hole and people are going nuts.

“It’s always really cool to get announced on the first tee as the Olympic Gold Medalist and it will be like that for quite some time, which is just nice and I’ll take full advantage of that.”

Schauffele tied for 10th in the 2019 Zozo Championship and then tied for 17th last season when the tournament was moved to Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks because Coronavirus pandemic travel restrictions.

Since his grandparents live in Japan, he has a big following there.

“Everyone’s kind of done the quarantine and travel rules to support me, which is nice, so it’s extra special to return to Japan,” said Schauffele, who went 3-1 to help the United States regain the Ryder Cup in September.

“The people in Japan love golf and it’s always nice to play in front of them, even if it is a limited number. I’m looking forward to it for sure.”

Schauffele, who has four victories on the PGA Tour, didn’t win last season but lost in a playoff to Thomas in his title defense at the Sony Tournament of Championship after also losing to Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland in another title defense at the 2019 WGC-HSBC Champions.

So despite winning the Olympic Gold Medal, he knows he can play better than he did for most of last season, when he finished second three times and third once before tying for 18th in the CJ Cup at Summit last week to start his new season.

“I feel not that I failed on the PGA Tour season, but I didn’t really accomplish what I wanted to,” said Schauffele, who was the 2017 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. “And I did get worse in certain categories throughout the year. But I was able to step up to the plate in tournaments that don’t count for the PGA TOUR… it’s an interesting feeling.

“I feel like I’ve had success, but then again I missed out on a lot of things that I wanted to accomplish. So, a weird space that I’m in mentally, but overall, I think celebrating the Ryder Cup win with my teammates sort of got me over the edge of feeling like I failed this season.”

Tiger Woods captured the first Zozo Championship by three strokes over home favorite Hideki Matsuyama of Japan in 2019 and Patrick Cantlay of Los Alamitos and UCLA won by one stroke over top-ranked Jon Rahm of Spain and the sixth-ranked Thomas last year at Sherwood, but only Matsuyama has made the trip to Japan this time.

Others in the field include Collin Morikawa of La Canada Flintridge and Cal, Paul Casey of England, Will Zalatoris, Tommy Fleetwood of England, Joaquin Niemann of Chile, Rickie Fowler, Alex Noren of Sweden, Si Woo Kim of South Korea, Keegan Bradley, Jhonattan Vegas of Venezuela and C.T. Pan of Taiwan, who won the Silver Medal at the Olympics in a seven-man playoff.

BEST BETS

1. Colin Morikawa, United States – The third-ranked Morikawa, who won the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s and the WGC-Workday Championship earlier this year among eight finishes in the top 10. He was 3-0-1 in the Ryder Cup and started the new season by finishing second in the CJ Cup @ Summit. Tied for 22nd in Zozo Championship two years ago.

2. Xander Schauffele, United States – The Olympic Gold Medalist in August returns to Japan after starting his new season with a tie for 18th in the CJ Cup @ Summit last week. The fifth-ranked Schauffele didn’t win on the PGA Tour last season but was second three times and third once among eight top-10 results. Tied for 17th in the Zozo last year and tied for 10th in 2019.

3. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan – The reigning Masters champion will be the home favorite after finishing second behind Tiger Woods two years ago in Japan, and he also tied for 28th last year at Sherwood. Matsuyama was second twice last season on the PGA Tour and started this season with a tie for sixth in the Fortinet. Lost out in the Bronze Medal playoff in the Olympic Games.

4. Will Zalatoris, United States – The 2020-21 Rookie of the Year on the PGA Tour tied for 11th in the Fortinet Championship and tied for 14th in the Sanderson Farms Championship to start the new season. Zalatoris had eight top-10 finishes last season, including second in the Masters and a tie for sixth in the 2020 U.S. Open. He will be making his first start in the Zozo.

5. Paul Casey, England – Has won 18 titles around the world, including three on the PGA Tour, and hopes to add Japan to the list of countries where he has claimed a victory. Casey finished in the top 10 on seven occasions and in the top 25 on 10 last season, and tied for 25th in the CJ Cup last week. He tied for 17th in the Zozo two years ago in Japan and tied for 35th last year.

6. Joaquin Niemann, Chile – The 22-year-old Niemann, in addition to winning the 2019 Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, finished second three times last year and has 17 results in the top 10 during his short career. An eight-time winner as a pro, including seven at home in Chile, he tied for 17th in the Zozo last year at Sherwood after tying for 33rd two years ago in Japan.

7. Tommy Fleetwood, England – Although he has won eight times as a pro, Fleetwood has yet to break through on the PGA Tour, but he has been close with  four runner-up finishes. Was a disappointing 0-2-1 in the Ryder Cup after going 4-1 in 2018. Finished in a tie for 22nd in the Zozo two years ago in Japan, but could manage only a tie for 57th last year at Sherwood.

8. Rickie Fowler, United States – After struggling since his fifth PGA Tour victory in the 2019 WM Phoenix Open, Fowler shot 63 in the third round last week to take the lead in the CJ Cup @ Summit, and eventually finished third. His best result last season was a tie for third in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. Tied for 57th in his only appearance in the Zozo last year.

9. Alex Noren, Sweden – Finished last season strong with a tie for 16th in the Olympic Games, a tie for fourth in The Northern Trust to open the playoffs and a tie for ninth in the BMW Championship, but didn’t make it to the Tour Championship. An 11-time winner as a pro, he has yet to break through on the PGA Tour. Tied for 17th in his only appearance in the Zozo last year.

10. Si Woo Kim, South Korea – Got off to a fast start in the new season with a tie for eighth in the Sanderson Farms Championship and a tie for 11th in the Fortinet Championship. Kim claimed his third PGA Tour victory last season in the American Express and also lost in a playoff at the Wyndham. Tied for 37th in his only Zozo appearance two years ago in Japan.

OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH: Keegan Bradley, United States; C.T. Pan, Taiwan; Jhonattan Vegas, Venezuela; Harry Higgs, United States; Cameron Tringale, Untied States; Emiliano Grillo, Argentina; Maverick McNealy, United States; Branden Grace, South Africa; Mackenzie Hughes, Canada; Carlos Ortiz, Mexico.

SLEEPERS

1. Henrik Norlander, Sweden – Two-time winner on the Korn Ferry Tour opened season with a T-4 in Sanderson Farms. T-2 in Farmers was his best result last season. Making his Zozo debut.

2. Robert Streb, United States – Won RSM Classic last year for second PGA Tour victory. Started new season with T-27 in Shriners, T-9 in CJ Cup. Will make first start in the Zozo.

3. Sung Kang, South Korea – Three-time winner as a pro, including the 2019 AT&T Byron Nelson, was T-27 in Shriners, T-32 in the CJ Cup. T-17 in the Zozo two years ago in Japan.

4. Kramer Hickock, United States – Five-time winner on lower tours, lost to Harris English in a playoff at Travelers Championship last season. Hickock is playing in Zozo for the first time.

5. Ryosuke Kinoshita, Japan – A three-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour, he was T-59 in the 2021 Open Championship in his first major appearance. Playing Zozo on sponsors exemption.

For first round tee times, visit https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard.html

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