The PGA Tour has a certain rhythm to it. Certain tournaments always take place at the same time of year while there are a number of geographical ‘swings’ which take in events over consecutive weeks in the same part of the world. The latest of these is the Asian swing which includes the CJ Cup, the Zozo Championship and the WGC-HSBC Champions.
The CJ Cup was first held in 2017 and right from the start a strong field of PGA Tour players jumped at the chance to compete at Nine Bridges Golf Club in Jeju. They were joined by some select players from the Korean Tour and Asian Tour to create an event with a real international feel at a top class golf course.
2022: Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy joined a small group of golfers to have successfully defended a PGA Tour event held at a different venue with his win in the 2022 CJ Cup. Nice as that achievement is for the Northern Irishman it was overshadowed by the fact that his win saw him return to the top of the official world golf rankings.
It took McIlroy two years to get back to the top. Two years which required a lot of blood, sweat and tears so it was fitting that he had to work very hard for his win in South Carolina. McIlroy played some very good golf on all four days at Congaree Golf Club and was pushed all the way on Sunday by Kurt Kitayama. A couple of poor swings and some excellent stuff from Kitayama saw the two tied at one point but there was almost a feeling of inevitability about McIlroy’s win given what was on the line.
McIlroy was rightly very proud of himself immediately after securing the win. “I’ve worked so hard over the past 12 months to get myself back to this place,” he said afterwards. “I absolutely love the game of golf and when I go out there and play with that joy, it has definitely showed over these past 12 months. It feels awesome.”
2021: Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy nearly didn’t turn up to Las Vegas to compete in the CJ Cup, so disappointed and drained was he after his poor performance in the Ryder Cup. “On the Saturday night of the Ryder Cup … I was done with golf, I didn’t want to see golf again until 2022.” said McIlroy after the culmination of the CJ Cup. “Sunday night at the Ryder Cup I thought: ‘Go to Vegas, go to CJ and try to build on this little bit of a breakthrough that I’ve had.’” After seeing off the challenge of Collin Morikawa, Rickie Fowler and Keith Mitchell to win the CJ Cup by one shot, he was very happy with that change of heart.
McIlroy made a slow start to the tournament, just about doing enough to keep himself in striking distance after the first two rounds. Then came a stunning display on Saturday when he took The Summit Club apart, going round in -10. That put him in the final group alongside a resurgent Fowler setting up a cracking final day. It was Morikawa who laid down the biggest challenge on Sunday though with a 62 of his own applying the pressure.
Thanks to some excellent putting and freakishly good play with his 3-wood, McIlroy was able to keep his head in front and closed the tournament out with a routine par. Speaking to the press afterwards, McIlroy admitted that he had tried to change too much in recent months before snapping out of it. “I realised that being me is enough, and being me I can do things like this.” McIlroy’s many fans are hopeful that he will kick on to have more success this season after joining the elite club of golfers to have won 20 times on the PGA Tour.
2020: Jason Kokrak
Travel restrictions around the world made life very challenging for golf in 2020. The CJ Cup was one of the tournaments most affected with the tournament moving from Jeju in South Korea to Las Vegas for one year only. As an Ohio native, Vegas isn’t exactly home territory for Jason Kokrak but it’s a lot closer than South Korea and he took advantage of the familiar surroundings of Shadow Creek Golf Course to win his first PGA Tour event in his 10th season.
“It feels like home,” Kokrak said of the temporary host course. He is an ambassador for MGM, the company who own Shadow Creek, so has played here more than most. That familiarity didn’t pay dividends straight away but after a solid opening round of 70, Kokrak improved from 14th to fifth with a round of 66 on Friday. A score of 68 on Saturday was enough to take him into second place but he began Sunday with a three shot deficit from Russell Henley.
Perhaps because he knew he would need a very good day to win, Kokrak came out of the traps firing. His 64 on Sunday was the best of the day and the joint lowest of the week after Xander Schauffele went round in the same number on Friday. Schauffele was the man who got closest to Kokrak in the final reckoning but his score of -18 was two shots behind the delighted champion.
2019: Justin Thomas
As the first man the lift the CJ Cup, this tournament was always going to be special for Justin Thomas. Jeju and the CJ Cup became even more special to Thomas in 2019 when he won the event for a second time. Thomas knows that testing himself in unfamiliar conditions and playing in international tournaments will help make him a better golfer and he looked a cut above a strong field at Nine Bridges Golf Club, winning by two shots.
Despite the strength of the field, Thomas’s only real competition during the final round came from Danny Lee. Lee is a New Zealander but he was born in South Korea so got a lot of support from the galleries at Nine Bridges. That was not enough to give him the edge over Thomas but it did help Lee keep things level throughout the front nine. That parity was ended when Thomas made a birdie on the 14th then one hole later as Lee made bogey.
Dropping two shots behind seemed to affect Lee as he made another mistake on the 16th. That made things comfortable for Thomas even though he made a mistake of his own on the 17th and he closed the win out with a regulation par on the final hole.
2018: Brooks Koepka
It was a case of another year, another big name winner at the 2018 CJ Cup. Brooks Koepka, who just weeks earlier had been named the PGA Tour player of the year, continued his excellent run of form to win the second edition of the CJ Cup by four shots from Gary Woodland.
Koepka was never likely to give up this excellent chance to win. He held a four shot lead over Scott Piercy at the 54-hole stage after rounds of 65 and 67 on the Friday and the Saturday followed a relatively mediocre one under par round of 71 to kick things off. Despite having that healthy cushion over the chasing pace, Koepka never took his foot off the accelerator. Just three players – Ryan Palmer, Gary Woodland and Adam Scott – went round in fewer shots than Koepka on the Sunday, his round of 64 putting the cherry on the cake of a very good week in South Korea.
Koepka is intent on making hay while the sun shines. Speaking afterwards he said, “Everything I’ve done this year it’s been working so I don’t want to change anything.” It is no coincidence that his style of golf works around the world. He learned his trade playing in far flung corners of the world on the Challenge and European Tours and South Korea is just one of seven countries in which Koepka has won a professional event.
2017: Justin Thomas
Everybody involved with the setting up of the CJ Cup wanted world class golfers to produce a genuinely dramatic finish to the inaugural edition. They got just what they wanted as Justin Thomas triumphed against Marc Leishman in a two-hole playoff.
If this were one year earlier, a win for Thomas wouldn’t have gone down as one for the big boys. His win 12 months earlier in the CIMB Classic was his second on the PGA Tour. Fast forward to October 2017 and victory in the CJ Cup made it five for the calendar year for Thomas including the PGA Championship in August. To call 2017 a breakout year for Thomas would be a major understatement and this win, his first of the new PGA Tour season, hammered home the point that he was an international superstar.
The CJ Cup is yet another move by the PGA Tour to become increasingly international. Thomas certainly sat on top of an international leaderboard with the Australian pair of Leishman and Cameron Smith in second and third respectively, Whee Kim delighting the Korean fans to finish fourth and India’s Anirban Lahiri among the rest of the players in the top 10.