Xander Schauffele and Collin Morikawa loving their return to Japan for the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP

The co-favourites this week at Narashino Country Club share American nationality and Japanese heritage.

Xander Schauffele is under no illusions.

This week's ZOZO Championship at Narashino Country Club promises to be a celebration of Japanese golf, with the country boasting links to two of 2021's Major Champions and also the Olympic gold medalist.

But one of that trio - Hideki Matsuyama - is leading the way.

"He's at the top of the food chain out here all right," Schauffele said ahead of the first round.

"He's the hometown boy and the hometown hero. Obviously, Collin (Morikawa) has won multiple Majors and no matter what I do, if the Olympics were in Japan for the rest of my life and I won every time, I think Hideki would still be the No.1 guy.

"That's just how it is and that's how it should be. He's Japanese and he's from here."

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Schauffele is delighted to be back in the land where his grandparents live and his mother was brought up. His Olympic triumph in August continues to shine a golden light on his year.

"I'm very excited," he said. "I was bummed to not come to Japan last year for the ZOZO (when it was re-located to California) so I was happy to make my return for the Olympics.

"Of course winning the gold medal was really special for my family and myself. Returning here has been really cool. I've been looking forward to this tournament for quite some time. It's easy to say that I'm very happy to be here.

"Winning would be really cool. It would be really special to sort of win twice in Japan, especially since I don't live here. I think it would be a huge honour for my family if I was able to do that and I'm going to do my best this week."

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His memories of the first ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP, back in 2019, are vivid.

"I was paired with Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, and we had such a warm welcome on the first hole with five to 10 rows deep of people just going nuts that we were out there.

"Japanese people love golf, they're so crazy about it and they're very supportive."

Morikawa's Japanese family emigrated to Hawaii before settling in California and he, too, is thrilled to be back.

"It's crazy, this is my fifth time now in Japan and fourth time playing golf," he said.

"My first time was in 2016, so I've pretty much come back once a year almost and it's just getting better and better.

"I wish we could explore the city a little more, but just to be here in Japan, to play for the fans once again, that's added motivation to try and win.

"These are some of the best fans. I remember my first tee shot out here two years ago when there were fans on stools and lined up five, six people deep. They would cheer for you walking to tee boxes, hitting every tee shot whether it's good or bad."

Let's take a closer look at their chances this week.

Schauffele

In 2021: 21 starts, six top six finishes, one win.

Last week: he carded a final round 63 to land T18th in THE CJ CUP.

In Japan: He missed a cut back in 2015, but since then has finished second in the Dunlop Phoenix, T10th in this event, and won the Olympics.

Morikawa

In 2021: 22 starts, six top six finishes, two wins.

Last week: Shot 65-62 on the weekend to set a clubhouse target only Rory McIlroy could beat.

In Japan: T22nd in this event two years ago, fifth at the Dunlop Phoenix the same year, tied third in the Olympics (but he missed out on bronze in a play-off).

Schauffele on the course

"I see a lot of rain in the forecast on Friday. I played the front nine yesterday, I'm going to play the back nine today. The course two years ago, when Tiger won, we had to turn the 10th into a par-3 and parts of the course were kind of under water just based on how much rain.

"The course is in really good shape. The greens are rolling fast, there's no blade of grass that's not in a good spot out there. The course is in awesome condition and hopefully the rain doesn't come in too heavy."

Morikawa on the course

"I played nine holes yesterday, played the back nine. Course is in fantastic shape, which is awesome. Obviously, two years ago we kind of had that storm, made everything really soft, but the course is in wonderful condition. Greens are great. Fairways are really tightly cut, so you're going to have to pay attention to where you hit it, and some of the greens are playing pretty tricky so far."

READ MORE: Punter's pointers: Who will emulate Tiger Woods and win the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP?

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