Matsuyama goes low in opening round of THE PLAYERS
March 12, 2020
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
Hideki Matsuyama’s 25-foot eagle putt at THE PLAYERS
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Last weekend, two hours away at Bay Hill, was not a pleasant one for Hideki Matsuyama.
On Saturday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard, he shot an 8-over 80, the worst third-round score in his PGA TOUR career. He followed it up with a 5-over 77 on Sunday. Not exactly the kind of bounce-back the Japanese star was hoping for, albeit admittedly in brutally tough scoring conditions.
The bounce-back, instead, came Thursday in the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship.
Finishing with a flourish on his final hole, Matsuyama tied the course record at TPC Sawgrass, shooting a 9-under 63 to take the first-round lead Thursday, two shots ahead of Harris English, Christiaan Bezuidenhout and 2017 PLAYERS champ Si Woo Kim in scoring conditions at the Stadium Course that were much more favorable than last week.
The conditions, however, will get much more surreal starting Friday after the PGA TOUR announced that fans will not be allowed for the final three rounds due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. The policy will continue through the Valero Texas Open.
But at least for one day this week, those who were following Matsuyama saw him at his best. Starting off the 10th tee, he opened his round with four consecutive birdies before his only stumble of the day at the par-5 16th, when he found the water and bogeyed the hole. He answered with four birdies after making the turn, before knocking his 3-wood second shot from 293 yards at the par-5 ninth to 25 feet, then draining the putt for eagle.
“I knew if I made that putt, if I made eagle there, I would be close to a course record,” Matsuyama said, “and I'm happy it went in.”
It’s the ninth 63 in PLAYERS history, and the fifth shot in the opening round. Of the previous four, Greg Norman (1994), Martin Kaymer (2014) and Jason Day (2016) went on to win.
Of course, there’s plenty of golf left to be played, and plenty of chasers.
While Matsuyama’s track record at TPC Sawgrass includes a couple of top-10 finishes in his last four starts, English’s results on Pete Dye’s course aren’t nearly as impressive. He’s made eight starts and has missed the cut the last six times.
His 65 is not only his lowest score in this event, it’s also the first time he’s broken 70 in his last 19 rounds here. He missed just three greens in regulation Thursday.
“That's huge out here,” English said. “A course like Sawgrass is one of the tougher ones we play all year tee to green and if you're not hitting it well, it's going to be tough to get around this place.”
Bezuidenhout, the 25-year-old South African ranked 47th in the world, was in the mix at Bay Hill last week before a final-round 79. Still, he tied for 18th in his third TOUR start of the season, and he carried over that momentum Thursday with a bogey-free round highlighted by a chip-in from 64 feet for birdie at the 14th.
Christiaan Bezuidenhout’s clutch birdie chip shot at THE PLAYERS
Until this week, he had never seen TPC Sawgrass, and his practice rounds included just nine holes on Tuesday and nine more on Wednesday. Still, he was able to tour the course with fellow South African Louis Oosthuizen, who tied for second at the 2017 PLAYERS.
Oosthuizen had to withdraw Thursday due to a shoulder injury, but he still made an impact on the leaderboard.
“He knows this course, knows how to play it, where to miss, where not to miss,” Bezuidenhout said. “He gave me some great insight into this course and some lines off the tee and stuff like that. It was nice to take advantage of that and post a low one.”
Kim’s round of 67 was the best of the afternoon wave. He caught fire early when he holed a wedge from the left rough for an eagle at the 11th hole, then rolled in a 5-footer for birdie at the next. He turned in 32, then made four birdies and a lone bogey on the front for the 65.
Si Woo Kim’s eagle chip shot from the cart path at THE PLAYERS
Marc Leishman (who also eagled the ninth hole) and Patrick Cantlay each shot 5-under 67. Like English, Leishman’s record at THE PLAYERS is spotty – just one finish inside the top 20 (T8 in 2013), with two missed cuts and two finishes outside the top 60 in his last four starts here.
“My track record hasn't been great around this golf course,” Leishman said, “and it was nice to change after that.”
Cantlay’s threesome included Matsuyama and Patrick Reed (73). “I played well; Hideki played really well,” Cantlay said. “And it was actually sneaky hard out there. I got so many mud balls that it was darn near a complete guessing game four or five times from the middle of the fairway. So 5 under is a good score today for me.”
A group of 15 players – including 2018 PLAYERS champion Webb Simpson -- were another stroke back. “No real hiccups,” said Simpson, a playoff winner last month at the Waste Management Phoenix Open who’s playing the first two rounds with Dustin Johnson (70) and Phil Mickelson (75).
Another player at 68 was Cameron Champ, who overcame two double bogeys – a four-putt at the eighth and an errant tee shot that found the water at the 18th -- by posting eight birdies.
“I'll take that any day,” Champ said. “So all around, even with two doubles, it was a solid day.”
Close friends Justin Thomas (71), Jordan Spieth (75) and 2015 PLAYERS champion Rickie Fowler (76) played together and each failed to break 70, with Fowler suffering two doubles.
Rory McIlroy, trying to become the first PLAYERS champion to successfully defend, double bogeyed the 15th hole to fall to 3 over late Thursday afternoon. But he birdied his final three holes – eliciting what likely was one of the final cheers of the tournament when he rolled in an 8-footer on No. 18 – to get back to even.
McIlroy said the wait at the tee on the par-5 16th turned out to be a fortuitous one as he was able to gather his thoughts after the miscue on the previous hole. He reminded his caddie, Harry Diamond, that he birdied his last three holes in 2014 to make the cut and ended up tying for sixth.
“So I don't know, just that little memory of doing that a few years ago sort of sparked a few good swings and a couple of nice putts at the end, and it's definitely something to build on going into tomorrow morning,” McIlroy said.