The kid from Japan with the tall hairdo and pause at the top announced himself as one to watch at the 2011 Masters, earning low amateur honors with his T27 finish. Hideki Matsuyama has been challenging the world’s best since then while becoming a golf icon to fans back in Japan.
For those in the U.S. who stayed up late, and others around the world, Sunday was a special day as Matsuyama claimed his seventh PGA TOUR title at the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP.
The Land of the Rising Sun could celebrate with its risen star.
Matsuyama comes alive for home fans
For most of the four days at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club, it felt like destiny was on Matsuyama’s side. He opened the tournament with a 64 to trail countryman Hiroshi Iwata by one but seized a one-shot lead with back-to-back 68s in tough conditions Friday and Saturday.
This season has had its highs and lows for Matsuyama, who won his first major at The Masters Tournament in April but missed the podium, losing the bronze-medal playoff, at the Tokyo Olympics in August. He came to the ZOZO playing poorly, he said, but found something.
An eagle at the par-5 6th hole extended Matsuyama’s lead to two over Cameron Tringale, but then it got tight. Matsuyama bogeyed No. 8, Tringale birdied No. 9, and they were tied.
Then Tringale birdied No. 10 to take the lead.
That’s when everything changed, Matsuyama throwing down the hammer. With the home fans giving him a little extra push, he birdied Nos. 11, 13 and 15 to take a two-shot lead. He and Tringale bogeyed 17, but then Matsuyama left no doubt, sending his fans into a frenzy.
From 241 yards out on the par-5 18th, Matsuyama hit a fairway wood to 12 feet. While Tringale bogeyed, Matsuyama slammed in his eagle putt for a statement-making five-shot win.
The victory is Matsuyama’s seventh on the PGA TOUR, but first in Asia. He pulls within one of K.J. Choi’s record eight PGA TOUR titles by an Asian-born player. “I was the only Japanese player contending and was up on the leaderboard,” he said. “To be honest, there were some pressures to deal with, but I’m glad I was able to convert that to positives.”
The last time the ZOZO was held in Japan, in 2019, Matsuyama finished second to Tiger Woods. But this was Matsuyama’s moment. Surprising, given that he said before the tournament, “If my game scored 10 out of 10 at the Masters, now, I would say it scores less than 1.”
Afterward, he boosted his grade, but not by much. “I would rate my performance as 2 or 3,” he said. “From the results perspective, it went about to 8, but I think it’s because of all the energy that I was getting from the fans, and I was very surprised how much energy I was feeding off of them.”
For sports-crazed Japan, which has been mostly without on-site fans during the pandemic, most notably for its own Olympic Games, it felt like a special moment in the country’s athletic history.
Tringale: another close call
Last May, Cameron Tringale put his name in the record books, for better or worse. He became the highest-earning PGA TOUR player without a win. After another runner-up finish, his fourth on TOUR, the 34-year-old Tringale retains his title, as much as he wants to get rid of it.
For about an hour on Sunday, it looked like Tringale might foil Matsuyama’s victory march. Tringale’s birdie at the 10th gave him sole possession of the lead. He waved to the crowd and was met with pleasant claps, although it was no secret who the gallery was cheering for.
Alas, he flatlined from there: pars on Holes 11-16, then a bogey-bogey finish to lose by five (T2).
“I needed to kind of take a couple risks and unfortunately it didn’t pan out,” Tringale said, “but I played 16 really good holes and yeah, that was the day.”
Of his eight top-3 finishes, four have come since the TOUR’s post-COVID restart in June of 2020. It feels like a victory is inevitable, but then it’s felt like that for a while.
“At least I was in it to some degree on the back nine,” he said. “I felt comfortable. I feel like I keep getting more comfortable and I’m more excited about continuing to be in that position.”
Still no first-time winners
Five weeks into the 2021-22 PGA Tour season, all five winners have added to their trophy case, while none have started their collection. Max Homa won his third title, Sam Burns his second, Sungjae Im his second, Rory McIlroy his 20th and Hideki Matsuyama his seventh.
All five champions are between ages 23-32 and all were in the top 50 in the world at the time of their wins. All five are expected to be consistent factors throughout this season, if not years to come.
The 2019 fall season produced four new winners, while the 2020 falls season gave us two.
Tringale, who tied for second with three-time TOUR winner Brendan Steele, joined Maverick McNealy and Cameron Young as 2021-22 runner-ups who were seeking their first wins.
Japan shows depth
While it was Japan’s most famous player hoisting the trophy, a handful of others also excelled.
Takumi Kanaya, the 2018 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship winner, who subsequently made the cut at the 2019 Masters, went 68-66 on the weekend to climb to T7 at 5 under. The 23-year-old Kanaya, who spent 55 weeks as the top-ranked amateur in the world before turning pro in 2020, has won three times on the Japan Golf Tour over the last three years.
Kanaya, who in 2020 won the Mark. H. McCormack Medal as the world’s No. 1 amateur – other winners have included Patrick Cantlay, Jon Rahm and Joaquin Niemann – is a legit future star.
Hiroshi Iwata, 40, who played on TOUR from 2016-2017, took the first-round lead with a 9-under 63. Although he cooled off (T18), he proved he can still go toe-to-toe with the best in the world.
Shugo Imahira, who has reached world No. 30 and made the cut at the 2020 Masters and U.S. Open, also finished T18. The 29-year-old has five Japan Golf Tour wins and if he can get his world ranking back up – he’s No. 136 – could find his way back to a few majors in the next decade.
Keita Nakajima, who followed Kanaya as the McCormack Medal winner in 2021 and remains the No. 1 amateur in the world, put together at an impressive T28.
In all, six Japanese players landed in the top 30, while just one – Matsuyama – did so in 2019.
Morikawa quietly in form
Just over two months ago, Collin Morikawa started the FedExCup Playoffs at No. 1 in the standings. Alas, he missed the cut at THE NORTHERN TRUST, finished T63 at the no-cut BMW Championship and had the 28th-best gross score at the TOUR Championship (of the 29 players who finished).
As it turned out, he had hurt his back in the Olympics, but by the time he got to the Ryder Cup a month ago, he said he was fully healthy. His results have backed that up.
After going 3-0-1 at Whistling Straits, Morikawa finished second at THE CJ CUP @ SUMMIT. He finished T7 at the ZOZO, and climbed to No. 2 in the world, his highest-ever ranking. In doing so, he passed Dustin Johnson, his partner in all three of his Ryder Cup wins.
The ascendant Morikawa, 24, only has one man ahead of him now: Jon Rahm.