News & Opinion

Matsuyama crushes Firestone in major way

AKRON, Ohio – Jack Nicklaus told you so.

Three years ago, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama won Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament for his first victory in America, and the host offered this analysis: “His tempo is so good and his composure is very calm. I think you’ve just seen the start of one of the world’s truly great players over the next 10 to 15 years.”

Say it again, Jack. Matsuyama locked up his third PGA Tour victory of the season Sunday with a near-flawless 9-under 61 at mighty Firestone Country Club to win the WGC Bridgestone Invitational (scores: http://bit.ly/1j3khNH). It was the lowest final-round score by any Firestone champion. Earlier this season, Matsuyama, 25, of Japan, successfully defended his Waste Management Phoenix Open title and captured the HSBC Champions, his first World Golf Championships trophy. He won the latter by seven strokes.

The language barrier has been the main reason Matsuyama hasn’t gotten more attention in America. It certainly hasn’t been his play. Matsuyama has won six of his past 20 worldwide starts, including the Taiyeiho Masters in Japan, which he also won by a seven-shot margin.

Let’s set a few records straight. Matsuyama is your real Best Player Who Hasn’t Won A Major Yet, but that may last only six more days. If he doesn’t snag the PGA Championship this week at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C., he’ll be a heavy favorite to break through at a major championship in 2018. 

That is hardly akin to going out on a limb. Look what Matsuyama has done this year in the majors: T-11 at the Masters (notice the closing 67); T-2 at the U.S. Open (with a second-round 65 at Erin Hills and a 66 on Sunday, the day’s low round); and T-14 at the British Open (check out his third-round 66 at Royal Birkdale). By the way, he was a quiet T-4 in last year’s PGA at Baltusrol. Has anyone seemed more major victory-ready?

Firestone caught Matsuyama’s Sunday best, but there’s no avoiding the obvious: this guy is very, very good. He was ranked third in the world before the Bridgestone. Life at the top of the Official World Golf Ranking can be very fluid. We’ve lost count of how many No. 1s we’ve had since Tiger Woods was toppled. In the past two years, we’ve seen the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson all look like the man who was going to step up on the pedestal and never step down.

Add Matsuyama to the mix. In fact, he may be part of a new class of young-young guns. Call them the 25-And-Under Big Three: Matsuyama, Spieth (24) and Spain’s Jon Rahm (22).

And another thing: Matsuyama is already very close to being Japan’s all-time greatest golfer. In Phoenix this year, Matsuyama humbly said he couldn’t achieve that unless he were to win a hundred times, like Masashi “Jumbo” Ozaki, the most honored Japanese golfer. Ozaki captured 115 titles. One major championship by a Japanese golfer, especially if it were to be the Masters, surely would change that perception.

“All I can do is my best,” Matsuyama said via interpreter after his Bridgestone Invitational victory. “I know a lot of us from Japan have tried to win majors. Hopefully, it will happen someday.”

Not much was missing from Matsuyama’s resume except for maybe closing out a big win. When he captured the Memorial, for instance, he almost lost it first, going double bogey-bogey at 16 and 17 before he took advantage of a good bounce back into the fairway on his drive at 18, hitting an approach to 5 feet and making the birdie putt to get in a playoff, where he defeated Kevin Na.

Sunday, Matsuyama surged ahead of pursuers Zach Johnson, Charley Hoffman and Rory McIlroy on the final nine. It wasn’t just his 31 but the surgical way in which he did it. It was still a game going to the final three holes, and then Matsuyama made three straight birdies. He played with Tiger Woods four years ago when Woods shot 61 here. “I couldn’t believe then that anyone could shoot 61 on this golf course,” Matsuyama said. “To be able to do it today is a dream come true.”

Scott Hend shot 63 in Saturday’s third round and joked that he couldn’t imagine how anyone could have shot 61 at Firestone. Guess who was paired with Matsuyama in Sunday’s finale and had a front-row seat? You guessed it. 

Matsuyama is long off the tee, averaging 301-plus yards per drive. He’s in the top 10 in just about every category that matters: greens in regulation (10th), birdies per round (third), scoring average (fifth) and strokes gained off the tee (eighth). He ranked 180th in strokes gained putting when he arrived here. He was 15th in that stat category for the week and was No. 1 in strokes gained around the green. When his putter is on, he showed he’s a potential world-beater.

Matsuyama learned the game from his father, Mikio, a former scratch golfer, and has no other formal teacher. After Matsuyama won the 2014 Memorial Tournament, he was asked who fixes his swing when things go wrong. “Nobody fixes it but me,” he said.

When the laughter died in the interview room, Nicklaus jumped in. “That right there,” he said, “will tell you why he’s going to be a good player.”

Nicklaus called his shot. Good call. 

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle