Woods, McIlroy major draws at Japan's star-studded PGA Tour debut

Chiba (Japan) (AFP) –


Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are the major attractions in a world-class line-up as the US PGA Tour breaks new ground with its first tournament in Japan this week.

The inaugural Zozo Championship tees off Thursday offering a $9.75 million prize pot as the middle leg of the Tour's new near $30 million three-tournament Asian swing.

It began last week at the $9.75 million CJ Cup in South Korea, won by Justin Thomas, and concludes at next week's $10.25 million WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.

Woods, who won his 15th major at this year's US Masters, will be joined at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club in front of an expected tens of thousands of golf-crazy Japanese fans by a who's who of golf.

World number two and PGA Tour Player of the Year McIlroy, eighth-ranked Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth and US Open Champion Gary Woodland are just a few sprinkling more stardust.

In-form Thomas will be aiming to improve his incredible strike-rate with a fifth victory in 10 starts in Asia after his second CJ Cup win in three years on Sunday elevated him to number four in the world.

But most eyes will be on Woods, and his troublesome left knee, after the world number 10 underwent arthroscopic surgery two months ago.

A smiling Woods said on Monday his recovery "was ahead of schedule" before he played a full 18 holes in an exhibition match on the Zozo Championship course in Chiba Prefecture.

"I'm probably a week early. My season had ended a little bit earlier than I had expected it," said Woods.

"I had the procedure a little bit early and got ahead of it."

- Tokyo ambitions -

Japan golf fans might be seeing a lot more of Woods in the next 12 months.

The 43-year-old said one of his ambitions was to play in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

"I would love to play in an Olympic Games," he said. "Hopefully next year I can have a good year and qualify."

The event is co-sanctioned by the Japanese Golf Tour Organisation (JGTO) and the home hopes are led by world number 27 Hideki Matsuyama, who has won six times on the US PGA Tour, most recently at the 2017 WGC Bridgestone Invitational.

"This is the first time I'm playing in a PGA Tour event in Japan. I'm very excited to play," Matsuyama, who is one of nine Japanese in the 78-man field, told reporters Tuesday.

Woods will begin on the 10th hole Thursday in a three-ball with Japan's world number 162 Satoshi Kodaira and England's Ryder Cup hero Tommy Fleetwood at 8:40am local time (2340 GMT Wednesday).

McIlroy starts an hour later on the first tee in a stellar grouping with Schauffele and Thomas.