Golf

Korean star Sungjae Im could prove very big in Japan

Korean star Sungjae Im has played his way out of mandatory military service and could use an added sense of freedom to make a big challenge at the ZOZO Championship in Japan
Korean star Sungjae Im has played his way out of mandatory military service and could use an added sense of freedom to make a big challenge at the ZOZO Championship in Japan Korean star Sungjae Im has played his way out of mandatory military service and could use an added sense of freedom to make a big challenge at the ZOZO Championship in Japan

AFTER something of a post-Ryder Cup lull, golf’s big names are slowly starting to come out to play again, while the lesser lights are getting more and more worried about playing rights for next term. 

The DP World Tour has two events left – in Andalucia and Qatar this week and next – for those further down the rankings to ensure they end up in the all-important top 110 to secure employment for 2024. 

The PGA Tour, meanwhile, is taking on a totally different look for next year, with places in the eight Signature Events already at a premium – the top 50 from the recently-completed FedEx Cup dominating those line-ups. 

The challenge for those on the outside looking in is to make the most of the ‘Fall Series’, either to push themselves onto the fringes of all the big tournaments in 2024, or to make sure they are among the top 125 with full playing privileges for everything else. 

The US-based tour has four more official competitions to go, although three of them are being held outside of America, starting with the ZOZO Championship in Japan, followed by trips to Mexico and Bermuda, before all the remaining issues are sorted out back on home soil at the RSM Classic in Georgia towards the end of next month. 

The main men making the trip to Narashino Golf Club just outside Tokyo for the ZOZO from Thursday need not worry about where they will be teeing it up in the new year, and can instead enjoy the ride and, in a number of cases, get reacquainted with their Japanese heritage. 

Xander Schauffele, Collin Morikawa and Rickie Fowler endured a difficult Ryder Cup in Rome, but should all feel more at home in Japan given their family links to the country. 

It is little surprise to see their names towards the top of the betting for an event that will get going in the early hours of Thursday morning, with Schauffele the favourite at no bigger than 15/2. 

He has fond memories of playing in Japan, having clinched Olympic gold at the nearby Kasumigaseki Country Club, while he did at least win his singles match at the Ryder Cup against Nicolai Hojgaard, unlike Morikawa and Fowler, who were both soundly beaten. 

That said, it is hard to really fancy any of them this week as prior to Rome their last individual outing came at the Tour Championship in Atlanta at the end of August. 

Schauffele did put in his customary fine performance at East Lake then, topping the 72-hole scoring alongside champion Viktor Hovland, and he has liked Narashino in the past, but question marks around sharpness are enough to put me off. 

This is the fourth time the ZOZO has made the trip to Japan, with the 2020 renewal played in California due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The three previous visits to Narashino have thrown up elite winners, with Tiger Woods claiming victory in 2019, before Hideki Matsuyama thrilled home galleries two years later. 

Keegan Bradley was the man to hoist the trophy 12 months ago, and all three champions are brilliant iron players who know how to manage their way around a tight course like this one. 

Narashino is a short par-70, lined by trees throughout, while the fact there will be five par-threes in use further enhances the focus on iron play. 

At his best, Morikawa would be ideal, but I can’t have him on current form at 11/1, while injury issues are the big negative against Matsuyama at 16s. 

Therefore, from those toward the head of the betting, Sungjae Im surely has the most in his favour, having warmed up with a fine outing in his native Korea on Sunday, losing a play-off for the Genesis Championship. 

That came on the back of winning gold at the Asian Games to mean he no longer has to do military service, which will surely free him up to hit new heights. 

Im has made the short trip from Korea to a venue where he was third in 2019, while many in the 78-man field – no cut this week – have had to make serious journeys from the Shriners Open in Las Vegas. 

That event was won by a Korean in Tom Kim on Sunday night, and it would be no surprise whatsoever if Im follows him in Japan. 

Elsewhere, I thought long and hard about putting Bradley up at 22/1 for a successful defence, having backed him at 33s last term, while Min Woo Lee could go close at 18s having romped to victory in the Macau Open at the weekend. 

However, I’ll side with the in-form Eric Cole to give a good account of himself on his Narashino debut at 28/1 with Paddy Power. 

The front-runner for PGA Tour rookie of the year has done everything but win in 2023, losing a play-off for the Honda Classic back in February and racking up a host of top-10s. 

Two of those have come in recent weeks, firstly when fourth at the Fortinet Championship, and then when third at the Shriners on Sunday night. 

The long trip to Japan is a concern, but Cole is flying at present and his game stacks up well for Narashino, having led the field in Las Vegas from tee-to-green, while he is also leading the tour in par-three scoring this year.  

The track should also play into the hands of Aaron Rai, who was only 36th last year but did shoot a second round 66 to show good signs. 

The Englishman was second when put up in this column for the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last month, and is very much a horse for a tight, tree-lined course.  

Rai won on similar Asian terrain at the Hong Kong Open in 2018, and his accurate play and top-class irons should be an ideal fit, so he could be a runner at the generous 45/1 offered by Paddy Power, while the 6/1 about him being top European also catches the eye. 

Finally, Ryo Hisatsune might just offer the best chance of a home winner as he looks to back up his victory in the Open de France last month.  

That DP World Tour win was coming for a while for the 21-year-old, whose approach play was superb in Paris, and while he had a humdrum outing in his homeland last week, he should now be acclimatised. 

Hisatsune was 12th in this last year, and with more experience in his locker, it would not be a surprise to see him go well at 70/1 (William Hill) to secure his playing rights on both major tours for next term.

ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP SELECTIONS


Sungaje Im, e/w, 14/1 (General);

Eric Cole, e/w, 28/1 (Paddy Power);

Aaron Rai, e/w, 45/1 (Paddy Power); top European, 6/1 (Paddy Power);

Ryo Hisatsune, e/w, 70/1 (William Hill); top Japanese, 13/2 (888sport)