On the final week of the LPGA’s fall Asia set, we have our most entertaining event on the schedule. The LPGA and Japan LPGA come together to play the TOTO Japan Classic. This annual competition has a field of 78 players. Forty-three players from the LPGA are joined by 35 players from the JLPGA. Together, they will compete for 72 holes over four rounds with no cut for a $2 million purse.
Six past TOTO Japan Classic champions are joined by five winners from 2023. Ten of the top 30 in the Rolex World Rankings are in the field and ready to round out the Asia swing. Nine of the last ten winners of the TOTO Japan Classic are from Asia, as those players have dominated this tournament. In a way, it makes sense since most of the LPGA has traveled back to the United States to prepare for the final two events of the season.
Those LPGA stars who do stay for the TOTO Japan Classic have ties to the region. The Taiheiyo Club is the host venue. Their Minori Course also hosted the TOTO Japan Classic in 2016, 2017, and 2020. That 2020 edition was just the JLPGA due to COVID restrictions. Up until 2021, the TOTO Japan Classic was a 54-hole event. The average winning score on the Minori Course for those three years was 17 under par. That is an average of 6 under par per round!
The players will go deep again and add more birdies with that fourth round. Even though we must compare two tours to predict the winner, there is a way we can break down the field. Birdie average is a measure of how many birdies a player makes in one round. Scoring is essential at the Minori Course and the sub-par leaders in the field are Miyuu Yamashita, Hyo Joo Kim, and XiYu Lin.
Can Lin finally breakthrough for a win, or will her driver turn in another average performance? Minori’s par 72 layout covers 6,598 yards. The shortest of the four Asian stops, maybe the driver won’t be as vital to contend. The Minori Course is true target golf and hitting those GIRs will create birdie chances. (Hyo Joo) Kim, Yamashita, Rose Zhang, and Akie Iwai all hit more than 72% of their GIRs.
Zhang made a charge last weekend and finished two strokes outside the playoff in third place. Keep an eye on Miyuu Yamashita. The four-time JLPGA winner leads their season-long points race and has finished second, second and fifth in her last three starts. Jiyai Shin is another excellent JLPGA player in great form. She won the TOTO Japan Classic at the Taiheiyo Club in 2020 at 19 under par. Shin is another player with excellent scoring ability and approach accuracy. Both lead to a strong scoring average of just over 70. Others in the field who can repeat going low and have solid scoring averages are (Hyo Joo) Kim, Yamashita, Zhang, and Lin.
Since the favorites are hard to separate and pick an outright winner, let’s look at course performance. (Jiyai) Shin hasn’t finished outside the top 15 at Minori in three starts and in 2020 Nasa Hataoka finished third. Another who can score with ease, Hataoka also has an excellent approach game hitting over 72% of her GIRs. Modern golf is fun to predict because we have so many statistics to help compare tours. The JLPGA is not as deep as the LPGA tour, but the upper echelon can compete.
Keep your eye on Yamashita, (Jiyai) Shin, and Chrisato Iwai. Each comes in with multiple top-10 finishes in their last three starts. While the LPGA stars have their eyes on the CME Group Tour Championship, one of these JLPGA standouts might just surprise everybody on Sunday afternoon.
Keith Stewart is an award-winning PGA Professional. He covers the LPGA and PGA Tour for Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, LPGA, and PGA TOUR. If you are looking to raise your golf acumen and love inside information about the game, check out his weekly newsletter called Read The Line.