Two weeks of the new PGA Tour season is in the books, and after Marc Leishman’s five-stroke romp in Malaysia, a talented 78-man field heads to arguably the Tour’s most exotic location of the season, Jeju Island in South Korea for the second annual CJ Cup.
Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas are the field headliners, and the two American stars’ battle for the world No. 1 ranking is one of the intriguing storylines heading into the second stop of the Asian Swing:
STORYLINE 1: JT VS BROOKS FOR NO.1
Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas will be paired together – alongside Korean Sungjae Im, in what is clearly the CJ Cup’s marquee grouping.
The two most recent winners of the PGA TOUR’s Player of the Year award, Koepka (No. 2) and Thomas (No. 4) are the only players in the field ranked inside the world top 10.
A win by either Koepka or Thomas would result in a new world No.1 player:
The 25-year-old Thomas has nine career wins, but eight of those have occurred over the past two seasons, including three last season where he led the Tour’s money list for the second consecutive season.
The University of Alabama product is worthy of extra attention from his profile alone, but what should worry the field most is that in his first attempt in Korea, Thomas finished atop the leaderboard, edging Marc Leishman in a two-hole playoff.
Thomas was hoping to notch his 10th career victory at last week’s CIMB Classic, where he had won twice before, but a final-round 7-under 65 was only able to get him into a tie for fifth, which would have been great for anyone else in the field.
After major championship victories at the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship last year, Koepka being named PGA Tour Player of the Year this past week was not anything resembling a surprise.
The Florida State bomber, who can also putt, chose Nine Bridges as his first tournament since the honor was announced, and at No. 3 in the OWGR, he is the highest-ranked player at Jeju Island this week.
Koepka ended the year poorly, finishing T26 out of 30 players at the Tour Championship, and going just 1-2-1 for the losing American side at the Ryder Cup, where he blew a late lead to Paul Casey to halve their Sunday Singles match, but if the cream rises to the top this week, as it often does, another strong performance should be expected from Koepka.
STORYLINE 2: FOUR AUSSIE STARS
Of the top 20 ranked players in the 78-player field at the CJ Cup, four are from Australia, with each player separated by about 3-5 years:
When Jason Day made his appearance here last season, he was struggling to find his game after a winless 2017 season, which followed an incredible two-year stretch (2015 and 2016) which included eight victories and $17.5 million in earnings.
One season later, things are better, but not totally.
The 30-year-old Day did win twice in 2018, but he was far from dominant as he never made a real push into the elite real estate of the world rankings, and seemingly floated at the edge of the top 10.
He enters the CJ Cup off a mediocre playoff run (T20, MC, T24, T18) and is now ranked No. 12 in the world.
Speaking of disappointing Aussies who have been No. 1 in World at one point, Adam Scott wrapped up a second-straight dud of a season in 2018.
Entering 20 events, Scott had just three top-10s, and other than the PGA Championship (3rd-place) was never really in the mix anywhere – a big surprise given the high standards the 13-time PGA Tour champion has set.
That being said, the 38-year-old traditionally plays well early in the season, and still has the iron game to thrive at a second-shot courses like Nine Bridges, where he finished 25th last year.
Jason Day (30) and Adam Scott (38) have always been considered the twins of Aussie elite talent. But over the past two calendar years (2017 and 2018), 34-year old Marc Leishman has won more PGA Tour titles (3) than his more famous countrymen, combined.
Leishman won twice during the 2017 season, and while he was shutout during the 2018 season, he picked up a win at last week’s CIMB Classic of the wrap-around season, giving him three PGA TOUR wins in less than 20 months.
Ranked No. 16 in the world now, Leishman is clearly the second-best Aussie in the world, and has actually outperformed Day in terms of victories.
The youngest of the four Aussie Tour stars, Cam Smith is only 25-years old and ranked No. 32 in the world.
The famously streaky Australian shot three rounds of 70 or better in Jeju Island last year, finishing solo-third at 8-under-par. Unfortunately, it is difficult to tell exactly where his game is at coming into this year’s version.
Smith runs very hot-and-cold, which we saw at the end of the year when he chased back-to-back third place finishes at the opening two playoff legs (Northern Trust and Boston) with a T65 at the BMW Championship (out of 70 golfers), and solo-20th (out of 30) at East Lake.
In Malaysia, Smith posted four sub-70 rounds to claim a top 25 finish (T22).
STORYLINE 3: THREE BEST KOREAN GOLFERS
South Korea has become an absolute powerhouse in women’s golf, a fact well-illustrated by the eight South Korean women in the top 15 of the Rolex Rankings, the female equivalent of the Official World Golf Rankings.
The Korean men, however, have been lagging behind. Their profile dramatically increased when Y.E. Yang overtook Tiger Woods to win the 2009 PGA Championship, but they have had few victories since, and they currently have just one member ranked among the top 50 in the world (No. 48 Byeong Hun An).
The CJ Cup at Nine Bridges was pitched and added largely from a desire to improve South Korea’s standing on the PGA Tour, and here are the three best South Korean entries:
BYEONG HUN AN
The highest ranked Korean in the world doesn’t even own a PGA TOUR title. He did post two runner-up finishes in 2018 (Memorial and RBC Canadian Open), though.
While An has been shutout of the winner’s circle on the PGA TOUR, he does own an elite victory on the European Tour: the 2015 BMW PGA Championship.
He enters off a T13 at last week’s CIMB.
SI WOO KIM
At just 23 years old, Si Woo Kim has a huge upside for Korean golf fans, as he’s already a two-time winner including a victory at THE PLAYERS Championship in 2017 – probably the biggest South Korean win since Y.E. Yang’s 2009 PGA triumph.
Kim has shown incredible flashes of talent, but he’s also been very, very bad. Last week in Malaysia, Kim closed with rounds of 66 and 65 to post an early top 10 on the new season.
Im, who was the No. 1 money-earner on the Web.com Tour last year, will be popular in gambling and fantasy circles this week, given that he is a native of Jeju Island, and is presumably conversant with Nine Bridges.
At 20 years of age, he might be lacking experience in PGA Tour events, but that did not seem to negatively affect him much at the recent Safeway Open, where he finished T4, just one stroke out of the playoff that was eventually won by Kevin Tway.
Im drove and putted tremendously at Silverado, which led to being third in the field in birdies.