On Kazuki Higa rest Japan’s hopes in ZOZO Championship

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Kazuki Higa - TheGolfinfHub
Kazuki Higa, who qualified for this week's US$11 million showpiece ZOZO Championship by virtue of being the winner of the BMW Japan Golf Tour Championship Mori Building Cup, led the Japanese charge in tied sixth after completing a blemish-free round containing three birdies. Photo: JGTO

Japan’s Kazuki Higa underlined his credentials as the current JGTO Money Ranking leader by ensuring the host is represented at the top of the ZOZO Championship leaderboard on the rain-soaked opening day when he carded a three-under-par 67 to stay three shots off the pace at the Accordia Golf Narashino Golf Club in Chiba.

American Brendan Steele set Thursday’s early pace after a late birdie blitz saw him shoot a 64 to lead by one shot from compatriot Adam Schenk. Steele’s impressive start showed his intention to redeem the heartbreak of missing out on a grandstand finish after finishing joint-second last year.

Another PGA Tour trio Sam Ryder, Matthew NeSmith and Keegan Bradley shared the third spot on four-under.

Higa, who qualified for this week’s US$11 million showpiece by virtue of being the winner of the BMW Japan Golf Tour Championship Mori Building Cup, led the Japanese charge in tied sixth after completing a blemish-free round containing three birdies.

All his gains were recorded on all the course’s par-five holes – the sixth, 14th and 18th.

“I think I did a pretty good job today. I was playing safely and did not encounter any nerve-wracking situations,” said Higa, who has won three titles this season including triumphing at the Kansai Open and Shinhan Donghae Open.

“I managed to sink all my putts and saved pars, particularly on the front nine because I was patient enough. I also hit a lot of fairways, that’s the key.

“I’m aiming to score under-par score every day. Three under par is the minimum score I should make. I want to keep playing like how I did today.”

American Rickie Fowler and Xander Schauffle, also sitting in a five-way tie for sixth, had hailed the amazing local fans as they did not let the poor weather discourage them from thronging the course.

Despite the downpour, the die-hard Japanese fans braved heavy rain and cold to watch their favourite players in action.

“It’s great, especially on a day like today, to have the number of fans that came out and support, it was great,” said Fowler.

“I’m assuming the next few days are going to be even more, but the fans here in Japan are amazing.

“They love their golf, you can definitely feel their appreciation for all the guys coming over and playing and for everything that ZOZO’s done to bring an event to Tokyo.”

Like Fowler, Schauffele also felt just as motivated playing in the presence of huge fans attendance.

“It’s awesome. With that forecast looking really grim, it was awesome to have so many people rooting us on,” said the Tokyo Olympics gold medallist, who played alongside crowd favourite Hideki Matsuyama.

“It was cool. He (Matsuyama) brought out most of the fans here on a wet and rainy day, so much appreciated.”

Steele left it late to power to the top of the standings, thanks to the four straight birdies in the final four holes.

 

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Steele picked up his first three gains at the second, 10th and 11th before dropping his only bogey at the 14th.

“Everybody says if you birdie 18, dinner tastes better, but four in a row is definitely really, really nice and feels good,” he said.

“I love it here (in Japan). Loved the course last year, really happy to be back. Nice for us to be able to get out of the hotel a little bit this year, too, and enjoy the culture a little, so I’ve enjoyed it a ton.”

 

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Defending champion Matsuyama, meanwhile, could only manage a 71 to be tied 41st in the 78-man standings.