Hideki Matsuyama credits fans for help in ZOZO win
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Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin
Hideki Matsuyama eagles 72nd hole to win ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP
Hideki Matsuyama's game may not have been up to his famously high standards this week, but he credited the Japanese fans for carrying him to victory in his homeland and adding another memorable moment to his reign as Masters champion.
Matsuyama shot 65 on Sunday, including two eagles, to win the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP by five shots over Brendan Steele and Cameron Tringale. It was Matsuyama’s seventh PGA TOUR victory, one shy of K.J. Choi’s mark for most by an Asian player, and second of this calendar year. The previous one, of course, was his Masters triumph in April that made him the first Japanese man to win a major.
Matsuyama received a hero’s welcome when he arrived in Japan after his win at Augusta National, becoming just the 34th recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award. He returned home again in July in a quest to add a gold medal to his green jacket. He finished fourth, however, heartbreakingly missing a putt for the bronze medal before losing in a seven-man playoff for that prize.
Still, the 29-year-old is the most successful Japanese player in PGA TOUR history and has inspired the country’s passionate fans with his success over the last decade. This time, they returned the favor.
“A factor that was going for me was the fans rooting for me and they were behind me,” Matsuyama said after adding another win in Japan to his eight victories on the Japan Tour. The ZOZO moved Matsuyama from 33rd to third in the FedExCup standings.
He arrived in Japan having finished outside the top 50 in the past two PGA TOUR events. Last week, he finished 15 shots behind winner Rory McIlroy at THE CJ CUP @ SUMMIT while ranking last in the field in Strokes Gained: Putting. Matsuyama gave his game a failing grade when he spoke to the media on the eve of the ZOZO.
“If my game scored 10 out of 10 at the Masters, now I would say it scores less than 1,” he said. “I will be struggling this week, but I am here in Japan so I am motivated to be in contention.”
That showed from the start, as Matsuyama opened with a 6-under 64 to sit one off the lead of countryman Hiroshi Iwata. Back-to-back rounds of 68 gave Matsuyama a one-shot lead over Tringale entering the final round.
Matsuyama started the final round with five consecutive pars before an eagle on the par-5 sixth. He bogeyed the eighth hole and Tringale, seeking his first PGA TOUR win after more than 300 starts, seized the lead with birdies at the next two holes. Matsuyama responded with three birdies in the next five holes to take a two-shot lead. Both players bogeyed the par-3 17th, setting the stage for Matsuyama to author an emphatic finish. Matsuyama hit a fairway wood from 241 yards on the par-5 finishing hole before holing the 12-foot eagle putt. Tringale closed with a second consecutive bogey.
“To really slam the door and hit an incredible second shot (on 18) and hole the putt, it was storybook,” Tringale said of Matsuyama. “He seemed a little off just based off watching his reactions to shots, but he hung in there. The crowd loved him.”
Matsuyama, who had gone nearly four years without a win before his Masters victory, has now won two PGA TOUR titles in a span of 15 starts. That doesn’t include the Olympics, which are not an official PGA TOUR competition. The Tokyo Games were his first chance to win in Japan during his reign as Masters champion.
When he arrived in Tokyo in July, he was still regaining his strength after a battle with COVID-19. No fans were allowed on-site, but throngs of volunteers trailed his every shot. He got off to a slow start in the first round, uncharacteristically admitting to pre-tournament nerves, while dealing with high temperatures that sapped his strength. Still, Matsuyama played his way into Sunday’s final group with Xander Schauffele, the eventual gold medalist, before missing a podium spot by mere inches.
“I’m left with frustration that I wasn’t able to convert the opportunities,” Matsuyama said afterward.
Now there is jubilation. He continued a trend of the Masters winner also claiming the ZOZO in Japan in the same year. Tiger Woods did it two years earlier, winning the inaugural ZOZO for his record-tying 82nd win. Matsuyama finished second that week, three shots back.
He is the champion this time, and he can thank his many fans.
“On the driving range, my balls were all over and not consistent,” he said Sunday, “but once at the golf course, I was able to feed off of the energy of the crowd.”
Sean Martin manages PGATOUR.COM’s staff of writers as the Lead, Editorial. He covered all levels of competitive golf at Golfweek Magazine for seven years, including tournaments on four continents, before coming to the PGA TOUR in 2013. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.