By TOM LaMARRE
Xander Schauffele has won seven times on the PGA Tour, but perhaps his biggest victory is one that is considered unofficial.
The 30-year-old Schauffele captured the Gold Medal at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“My love and respect for Japan runs deep, from childhood memories of visiting my grandparents.” said the sixth-ranked Schauffele, who is the betting favorite in the Zozo Championship, which starts Thursday (Wednesday night U.S. Time) at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club in Chiba, Japan.
“It was great to play in the inaugural Zozo Championship, and of course, winning the Gold Medal at the Olympic Games. Japan is a special place to me and my family. I’m excited to be back here again to compete in the Zozo Championship. I’ve had a great year thus far and winning in Japan would be the perfect end to what has been a memorable 2022.
“I think it would be a huge honor for my family if I was able to do that, and I’m going to do my best this week.”
Schauffele, from La Jolla and San Diego State, has won 12 times as a pro, including the Zurich Classic of New Orleans with ninth-ranked Collin Morikawa of La Canada Flintridge and Cal, the Travelers Championship and the Genesis Scottish Open this season.
The ninth-ranked Morikawa, who also has relatives in Japan, is in the field too.
“I’ve played in every Zozo Championship since 2019 and it’s a tournament that I mark out on my calendar at the start of every year,” said Morikawa, who has won five times on the PGA Tour, but not since the 2021 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England.
“Japan is an amazing country and the fans are incredible. The Morikawa family name goes back generations to Kumamoto, Japan, and having the opportunity to compete in a country with deep family roots is something I take great pride in. I look forward to concluding my year with some delicious Japanese food, playing on a great golf course and hopefully securing a win along the way.
“These are some of the best fans. I remember my first tee shot out here two years ago, when there were fans on stools and lined up five and six people deep. They would cheer for you walking to tee boxes, hitting every tee shot, whether it was good or bad.”
Despite Schauffele and Morikawa having relatives in Japan, the local favorite is Japanese native Hideki Matsuyama, who is the defending champion in the Zozo.
Last year, Matsuyama posted four rounds in the 60s to beat Brendan Steele of Idyllwild in the Southern California mountains and UC Riverside, and Cameron Tringale of Mission Viejo by five strokes.
“I am pleased to be participating in the Zozo Championship again this year and am very happy to be able to compete as the defending champion in the only PGA Tour tournament held in Japan,” said Matsuyama, of Ehime, Japan, who has won seven times on the PGA Tour, including the 2021 Masters.
“I will do my best to play well for all the golf fans who have always supported me, and I hope to see my fans at the golf course.”
Others in the field for the fourth event of the new PGA Tour wraparound season include 20-year-old rising star Tom Kim of South Korea, Viktor Hovland of Norway, Sungjae Im of South Korea, Mackenzie Hughes of Canada, Cameron Young of the United States, Sepp Straka of Austria, Tyrrell Hatton of England, Tom Hoge of the United States, Mito Pereira of Chile, Maverick McNealy of the United States, Corey Conners of Canada, Sebastian Munoz of Colombia, Sahith Theegala of the United States and Kurt Kitayama of the United States.
But most eyes will be on Matsuyama, Schauffele and Morikawa.
1. Xander Schauffele, United States – The sixth-ranked Schauffele has played well in Japan, winning the 2021 Olympic Gold Medal in Tokyo and tying for 10th in the Zozo in 2019 and tying for 28th last year. He claimed three of his seven PGA Tour victories among seven top-10 results last season, and posted a 3-1 record to help the U.S. retain the Presidents Cup last month.
2. Sungjae Im, South Korea – Finished seventh in his title defense in the Shriners Children’s Open to start the season last week, shooting 63 in the third round, after posting a 2-2-1 record in the Presidents Cup. Im, who has five victories as a pro, recorded nine top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour last season, and in 2020 he tied for third in the Zozo, six shots behind winner Tiger Woods.
3. Tom Kim, South Korea – The 20-year-old rose to No. 15 in the World Rankings after winning the Shriners last week for his second title in four events, also winning the Wyndham in August among six top-25 finishes on the PGA Tour last season. Kim, who has six other pro titles, went 2-3 for the International team in the Presidents Cup, and is making his debut in the Zozo.
4. Collin Morikawa, United States – The ninth-ranked Morikawa makes his first start of the new season after going 2-1 for the U.S. in the Presidents Cup. The last of his five PGA Tour victories came in the 2021 Open Championship, and last season he had eight top-10 results, including second in the Genesis and the CJ Cup. He tied for seventh in 2021 Zozo, tied for 22nd in 2019.
5. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan – The defending champion in the Zozo, who also finished second behind Tiger Woods in 2019, also won the Sony Open last season. Matsuyama tied for 25th in the Fortinet Championship to open the new season and went 1-3-1 in the Presidents Cup. He has eight PGA Tour victories, including the 2021 Masters, and also claimed six titles in Japan.
6. Viktor Hovland, Norway – Has slipped to No. 11 in the world, but tied for 15th in the Tour Championship to cap a season when he had five top-10 finishes, including his third PGA Tour victory in the World Wide Championship at Mayakoba. Hovland, who returned to the DP World Tour and tied for fifth in the BMW Championship, tied for 41st in the 2019 Zozo Championship.
7. Cameron Young, United States – A two-time winner on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2021, Young still hasn’t won on the PGA Tour, but he finished second five times including in the Open Championship, and third twice including in the PGA Championship last season, making him a prime candidate for Rookie of the Year. Young makes his first start in the Zozo Championship.
8. Mackenzie Hughes, Canada – Claimed his second PGA Tour victory early this month in the Sanderson Farms Championship in a playoff, also having won the 2017 RSM Classic. Also tied for 25th in the Fortinet Championship to start the new season. Hughes, who also won on the Korn Ferry Tour and the PGA Tour Canada, tied for fourth in the Zozo Championship last year.
9. Sepp Straka, Austria – Captured the Honda Classic for his first PGA Tour victory last season after also winning the 2020 KC Golf Classic on the Korn Ferry Tour. Straka opened this season by losing in a playoff to Mackenzie Hughes in the Sanderson Farms Championship. He also was second in the Fed Ex St. Jude, tied for third in the RSM Classic and tied for ninth in the Players.
10. Tom Hoge, United States – After claiming his first PGA Tour victory in the 2022 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and recording six top-10 finishes, including second in the American Express, Hoge opened the new season by tying for 12th in the Fortinet Championship and tying for fourth in the Shriners Children’s Open. He was 17th in the Zozo Championship last year.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH: Scott Stallings, United States; K.H. Lee, South Korea; Sahith Theegala, United States; Maverick McNealy, United States; Mito Pereira, Chile; Tyrrell Hatton, England; Lucas Herbert, Australia; Kurt Kitayama, United States; Corey Conners, Canada; Sebastian Munoz, Colombia.
1. Davis Riley, United States – Two-time winner on the 2021 Korn Ferry Tour, Riley finished T-19 in the Sanderson Farms after placing in the top 10 six times last season. Makes Zozo debut.
2. Christiaan Bezuidenhout, South Africa – Has won seven times around the world, but still seeks first PGA Tour tile. Was 1-0-1 in Presidents Cup and tied for second in 2022 John Deere.
3. Aaron Rai, England – A six-time winner around the world, Rai tied for sixth in the Farmers Insurance Open last year and tied for 20th last week in the Shriners. Making his Zozo debut.
4. Beau Hossler, United States – After losing to Ian Poulter in a playoff at the 2018 Houston Open, was third at Pebble Beach and T-4 in Texas Open last season. Making his debut in Zozo.
5. Stephan Jaeger, Germany – Has won six times on the Korn Ferry Tour and last season was fifth in Rocket Mortgage Classic, plus T-6 in the Wells Fargo. This is his debut in the Zozo.
For first-round tee times, visit: https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard.html