124th U.S. Open

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Zozo Championship 2021 picks: Don't hop back on the Rickie Fowler bandwagon yet

October 19, 2021
MAMARONECK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 17: Rickie Fowler of the United States walks on the seventh hole during the first round of the 120th U.S. Open Championship on September 17, 2020 at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

As much as we all love Vegas, we’re not sad to see the PGA Tour bounce Sin City in favor of the Asian Swing. Our experts failed to cash a winner in the desert, which only makes us hungrier to get it done at this week’s Zozo Championship.

The field is noticeably weaker than a week ago, with only three of the top 20 in the OWGR—Xander Schauffele, Collin Morikawa and Hideki Matsuyama—teeing it up. The result is a top-heavy odds board, but one that features some strong value in the mid-to-lower tiers of the board. That said, Schauffele, Morikawa and Matsuyama all make appearances in our outright selections section.

In 2019, the last time the Zozo was held at Narashino Country Club, Tiger Woods picked up his record-tying 82nd PGA Tour victory, and the rest of the leader board was littered with all-world iron players. Look for players with strong approach numbers to shine in Japan this week.

Read on to see who we like this week at the 2021 Zozo Championship.

Zozo Championship 2021 picks: Our Experts’ Outright Predictions

Anonymous Caddie Picker of the week: Xander Schauffele (+750, Caesars Sportsbook) — Three of Xander’s four PGA Tour wins have come against limited fields. Of course, he won the gold medal in Japan just a few months ago. There’s a reason why people have such expectations for him this week—three runners-up last year has Xander poised for a win.

Pat Mayo, DraftKings/Fantasy National, Mayo Media Network analyst: Collin Morikawa (7-1, DraftKings) — Not a great price, but having the best player in the field not as the betting favorite is usually a time to jump on some value.

Brandon Gdula, FanDuel/numberFire managing editor: Joaquin Niemann (20-1, FanDuel) — Niemann has the combination of having played here in 2019 (he finished 33rd) and should gain distance on the field, which is really the primary stat we know matters because there is no Shotlink data from this event back in 2019. He’s a fair-value bet in my model, and that makes him stand out among the favorites, who are mostly otherwise overvalued.

Rick Gehman, data scientist and RickRunGood.com founder: Jhonattan Vegas (35-1, PointsBet) — Vegas doesn’t get the respect he deserves for being one of the better ball-strikers on tour. He’s an elite driver who has gained strokes off-the-tee in 10 of his past 13 starts. He combines that with excellent approach play, gaining strokes in eight of his past nine, per the RickRunGood.com golf database. He’ll need to conquer his demons of putting on bentgrass greens, but he offers some semblance of value in this field.

Stephen Hennessey, Golf Digest dep. managing editor: Hideki Matsuyama (12-1, BetMGM) — I love a lot of longshots in this weaker field, but I’m buying into the narrative play of Hideki back in Japan. It would be the perfect cap to a glorious 2021 to win in his home country after coming up shy at the Olympics. Plus, he finished second here in 2019—and per Justin Ray, leads the tour in scoring on layouts 7,100 yards and less over the past four years. Not a ton of value, but you won’t care when this cashes.

Christopher Powers, Golf Digest assistant editor: Joaquin Niemann (20-1, FanDuel) — Much like an object in your rearview mirror, Joaquin Niemann’s game is closer than it appears. He hasn’t had a top 10 since losing the Rocket Mortgage in a playoff, but last week he was extremely solid across the board statistically, save for a balky putter. If that flips, he should be able to contend for an elusive second tour win against this weak field.

Lee Alldrick, FanShare Sports: Maverick McNealy (35-1, PointsBet) — McNealy comes into this event ranked 11th in the field for SG/total over the past two months. In fact, in his last nine events he has recorded five top-21 finishes, which includes a second just three events back. He also ranks first in the FanShareSports’ course-suitability ranking this week.

Past results: Golf Digest's betting panel had another strong season in 2020-’21, correctly predicting 14 winners in the last 28 events of the year. Of course, the gambling gods don’t care about last season. As Bill Belichick says, “We’re on to 2021-’22.” We got the new season off right with Rick Gehman hitting Sam Burns (16-1) at the Sanderson Farms Championship.

Zozo Championship 2021 picks: Sleepers/Dark Horses Who Could Win

Caddie: Adam Schenk (60-1, PointsBet) — A name popping up on your radar after three top-four finishes in his past nine starts—aka since Brent Henley came out of retirement to take over the strap. This is a small field, no-cut event—he’ll have as good of a chance as any to get it done this time.

Mayo: Henrik Norlander (65-1, DraftKings) — The driving has been suspect, but he has gained over 7.6 strokes on approach in two of his past four starts. If he can find his putter, I’ll take a chance in a weak field.

Gdula: Matt Jones (80-1, FanDuel) — Jones’s primary drawback is his iron play, which is always key for me. However, he does have plus distance and short game, including the best wedge play over the past year with recency and field-strength adjustments, per my database.

Gehman: Harry Higgs (66-1, Caesars Sportsbook) — Higgs had himself a nice trip to Las Vegas, earning a T-27 at the Shriners and a T-9 at the CJ Cup. The most recent performance last week at Summit Club is noteworthy: Higgs gained over four strokes on approach and nearly six with his putter. That’s not always sustainable, but it’s worth noting that it’s possible. That combination of skill-sets can create a situation where golfers reach their ceiling, and Higgs is living in that happy space right now.

Hennessey, Golf Digest: C.T. Pan (40-1, Caesars Sportsbook) — The number is short, yes. But for good reason. He enters with two consecutive top-15 finishes—and most impressively he’s top 20 in nearly every strokes-gained metric over the past 24 rounds, per Fantasy National. The star from Chinese Taipei was the bronze-medal winner here in Tokyo in the summer, so he’ll have some great vibes coming back to Japan.

Powers, Golf Digest: Sung Kang (130-1, DraftKings) — This is a bit bold considering Kang hasn’t had a top 10 since the 2020 Arnold Palmer Invitational, which was a week before the world stopped. But his form is coming around of late, evidenced by a first-round 61 at the Shriners and by the fact he’s gained strokes on approach in six of his last seven starts. His putter has been red hot for awhile now, he just needs everything else to click to have a shot.

Alldrick, FanShare Sports: Ryosuke Kinoshita (160-1, FanDuel) — Kinoshita is on a heater right now in Japan. In his past 12 events he has recorded seven top-10 finishes, which includes two wins, two thirds and a fifth. He has also fared well when playing abroad this year, making the cut in all three of his PGA/WGC/major events.

Zozo Championship 2021 picks: Players to Fade This Week (who will disappoint)

Caddie: Rickie Fowler (25-1, DraftKings) — Last week was Rickie’s best finish in more than two years. He’s trending in the right direction, but I need to see (a lot) more before betting him at 25-1.

Mayo: Rickie Fowler (25-1, DraftKings) — Maybe Rickie keeps it rolling in Japan, but he’s far more likely to revert back into the player he’s been for the last 12 months. At this price, you’re paying way up.

Gdula: Collin Morikawa (+650, FanDuel) — Would I be surprised if Morikawa wins this event? No. Is he significantly overvalued based on my win simulation model? Yes. He doesn’t have the distance that other golfers at the top have. The odds are too short to chase.

Gehman: Tommy Fleetwood (22-1, DraftKings) — Fleetwood flashed brilliance on Saturday last week, gaining 4.5 strokes on the field en route to a 64. The problem for Fleetwood is that those rounds have been few and far between for the past 18 months. Fleetwood used to be one of the better ball-strikers on the planet, but he is actually losing strokes combined off-the-tee and approach dating back two seasons and 113 measured rounds.

Hennessey, Golf Digest: Tommy Fleetwood (22-1, DraftKings) — Where is the win equity in this bet? You can make a better case for anyone else around Fleetwood.

Powers, Golf Digest: Rickie Fowler (25-1, DraftKings) — This is my way of trying to reverse mush Rickie into a win. Ain’t no way I’m betting it at this number, though.

Alldrick, FanShare Sports: Rickie Fowler (25-1, DraftKings) — It was encouraging to see Fowler contending once again, and that was territory he’s not used to being in. Add a flight over to Japan to that mix, and we could see a very physically drained Fowler this week. Despite his good week last week, Fowler still only ranks 41st in the field this week for Opportunities Gained over the past two months.

Zozo Championship 2021 picks: Matchups

Caddie: Harry Higgs (+105) over Rickie Fowler (DraftKings) — Higgs has kept the momentum going from last season into Vegas. That’s more of a trend than one week for Rickie.

Mayo: Collin Morikawa (+105) over Xander Schauffele (DraftKings) — I rate Morikawa as the better player, not by much, but enough to grab plus money on him.

Gdula: Carlos Ortiz (-108) over Emiliano Grillo (FanDuel) — Grillo does have an advantage in course familiarity, as he finished 30th here in 2019, but it’s Ortiz with the better distance and fewer putting concerns in this matchup.

Gehman: Hideki Matsuyama (-120) over Tommy Fleetwood (DraftKings) — Over the past 100 rounds for each golfer, Matusyama has been twice as good as Tommy Fleetwood. Matsuyama is gaining 0.68 strokes per round to Fleetwood’s 0.32, per the RickRunGood.com golf database. If you look at the “stickier” stats, like ball-striking, Matsuyama outpaces Fleetwood by a significant margin. We’re almost certain to get Matsuyama grinding over every shot for four rounds as he will be the main attraction in Japan.

Hennessey, Golf Digest: Mackenzie Hughes (-110) over Ryan Palmer (Betfair) — Palmer has really struggled recently—you need to go back to April for his last top 25. He’s lost strokes on approach in his past three measured events, a rarity for Palmer. Hughes, however, has not missed a cut since June. These seem like two golfers trending in opposite directions, and we’re getting them at basically even odds.

Powers, Golf Digest: Chris Kirk (+100) over Emiliano Grillo (DraftKings) — After two ugly putting weeks, Kirk figured it out on the greens and gained 4.7 strokes putting at the CJ Cup. Grillo, meanwhile, has lost strokes on the greens in all but one of his last 10 starts. Both these guys should do fine tee-to-green, so I’ll lean with the better putter of the two in a matchup.

Alldrick, FanShare Sports: Jhonattan Vegas (-137) over Erik van Rooyen (Betfair) — Vegas ranks top 25 for SG/total over the past two months, Opportunities Gained over the past two months and FanShare’s course-suitability ranking. Van Rooyen on the other hand has no course experience on similar courses and ranks just 38th for Opportunities Gained over the past two months.

Matchup Results from the CJ Cup: Mayo, Powers: 1 for 1 (Collin Morikawa (-110) over Sam Burns); Gehman: 1 for 1 (Jason Kokrak (-120) over Charley Hoffman); Caddie, Gdula, Hennessey, Alldrick: 0 for 1.

Matchup Results from this season (Wins-Losses-Pushes): Mayo: 4-0-0 (up 3.52 units); Caddie: 2-2-0 (down 0.09 units); Powers: 2-2-0 (down 0.09 units); Gdula: 1-3-0 (down 2.07 units); Gehman: 1-3-0 (down 2.09 units); Hennessey: 0-4-0 (down 4 units); Alldrick: 0-3-1 (down 3 units)

Zozo Championship 2021 picks: Top 10s

Caddie: Hideki Matsuyama (+170, DraftKings) — What’s not to like about the hometown hero returning to Japan with some form (sixth-place in Napa).

Mayo: Doug Ghim (+500, DraftKings) — You’re basically getting Emiliano Grillo but at a much better price.

Gdula: Jhonattan Vegas (+240, FanDuel) — Vegas’ length and birdie ability make him a win consideration as well as a top-10 bet for me this week. He leads the field in both of those stats over the past 50 rounds, according to FantasyNational.com.

Gehman: Keegan Bradley (+320, FanDuel) — Bradley has played six rounds this season and has gained a total of 1.51 strokes putting. That might not sound like much, but it’s a huge improvement considering he lost 0.55 strokes putting per round last season. If he can continue to be average with his putter, he can lean on his normally excellent tee-to-green play to find success.

Hennessey, Golf Digest: Kyle Stanley (+700, FanDuel) — I can understand the Kyle Stanley love this week. His ball-striking numbers are incredible—gaining strokes tee-to-green in every event going back to mid-May. He’s also top 20 in SG/total over the past 24 rounds on par-70 courses under 7,200 yards. And his par-3 scoring numbers are very strong, which is big with five par 3s this week. Of course, it’s the putting you worry about, which is really, really bad. But give us a neutral week and we could be cooking!

Powers, Golf Digest: Matthew Nesmith (+800, DraftKings) — The leader board from Narashino in 2019 is littered with legendary iron players, which is where Nesmith makes his bread. He’s fifth in this field in strokes gained/approach over his last 50 rounds, per Fantasy National, and he’s coming off his first top 20 at Shriners since last season’s Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Could be a hot-hand situation, which worked out nicely with Gooch in this space last week.

Alldrick, FanShare Sports: Emilano Grillo (+320, FanDuel) — Grillo comes into this event ranked first in the field this week for Opportunities Gained over the past two months, so he’s clearly playing some great golf right now. This form should continue this week as we have him ranked fifth in FanShare’s course-suitability ranking. If the putter just gets a little warm on these Paspalum greens, he could be in for a great week.

Top-10 results from the CJ Cup: Powers: 1 for 1 (Talor Gooch, +500); Everybody else: 0 for 1.

Top-10 results from this season: Powers: 2 for 4 (up 15 units); Mayo: 1 for 4 (up 11 units); Caddie: 0 for 4 (down 4 units); Gdula: 0 for 4 (down 4 units); Gehman: 0 for 4 (down 4 units); Hennessey: 0 for 4 (down 4 units); Alldrick: 0 for 4 (down 4 units)

Zozo Championship 2021 picks: One and Done

Gehman: Hideki Matsuyama — The Masters champion will get a hero’s welcome in front of the 5,000 fans in attendance each day this week. He’ll be familiar with Narashino C.C., as he finished second here in 2019. This is a course that rewards ball-strikers, which is exactly the style of course that works for Matsuyama. And you know he’s going to grind for every single shot this week.

Previous weeks: Fortinet Championship: Kevin Na; Sanderson Farms Championship: Mito Pereira. Shriners: Abraham Ancer. CJ Cup: Louis Oosthuizen.

Hennessey: Takumi Kanaya — This should create some leverage for you … and the guy has serious top-10 upside.

Previous weeks: Fortinet Championship: Emiliano Grillo; Sanderson Farms Championship: Carlos Ortiz. Shriners: Abraham Ancer. CJ Cup: Collin Morikawa.

Powers: Joaquin Niemann — This should be a field Niemann can take down at his best, which we seem to be closing in on.

Previous weeks: Fortinet Championship: Brendan Steele. Sanderson Farms Championship: Mito Pereira. Shriners: Aaron Wise. CJ Cup: Talor Gooch.

By The Numbers:

Courtesy of Rick Gehman of RickRunGood.com:

5.52 The number of strokes gained by Rickie Fowler last week off-the-tee. That’s the sixth-best driving tournament of his career and only the eighth time he’s gained more than five strokes in a single week.

1,016 — The number of days since Xander Schauffele’s last official PGA Tour victory, the 2019 Tournament of Champions. Obviously he won the Olympic Gold Medal, but that doesn’t count as an official win on tour.

0.04 — The number of strokes lost by Tommy Fleetwood per round in the ball-striking categories (off-the-tee and approach) since the start of the 2020 season. From 2014 to 2019, Fleetwood averaged +0.96 strokes per round, a full stroke per round difference.

76.9 percent — The percentage of recent events (10 of 13) that Carlos Ortiz has gained strokes on approach. That’s significant improvement considering he lost strokes in 10 of his previous 13 events before this stretch.

About our experts

Pat Mayo is an award-winning video host and producer of long and short-form content, owner of the Mayo Media Network and host of The Pat Mayo Experience. (Subscribe for video or audio. Mayo (@ThePME) won the 2020 Fantasy Sports Writing Association Daily Fantasy Writer of the Year and Golf Writer of the Year awards, along with the Fantasy Sports Trade Association Best Sports Betting Analyst award, and was finalist for four FSWA Awards in 2020 (Best Podcast, Best Video, Daily Fantasy Writer of the Year, Golf Writer of the Year). His 21 FSWA nominations lead all writers this decade and are third-most all-time. Mayo is on the board of governors at www.fantasynational.com.

Brandon Gdula, managing editor and analyst for NumberFire, a FanDuel daily-fantasy analysis company, recently won the 2018 fantasy sports-writers association Golf Writer of the Year *(congrats, Brandon!)*. Gdula also co-hosts the DFS Heat Check podcast.

Rick Gehman is the founder of RickRunGood.com and the RickRunGood YouTube Channel, is one of the industry’s leading experts on golf DFS and gambling. Gehman is co-host of the First Cut Podcast and appears regularly on the Pat Mayo Experience golf podcasts. Follow him on Twitter: @RickRunGood.

Lee Alldrick of FanShare Sports started out writing an article highlighting the best bargain plays for fantasy golf under his twitter handle @DKGolfBargains. His success at this prompted FanShare Sports to enlist him as a guest writer, which evolved into him writing the weekly Under The Radar article. As a U.K.-based expert, Alldrick’s insight into European Tour regulars and low priced, low owned plays has provided an invaluable edge for readers when it comes to DFS GPPs.