A decade after debut, Hideki Matsuyama on cusp of Masters win
April 10, 2021
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
- Hideki Matsuyama recorded a 7-under 65 on Saturday at the Masters. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Three rounds into his Masters debut, Hideki Matsuyama knew his game was well-suited for Augusta National. He was just a 19-year-old amateur when he shot a Saturday 68 en route to a finish in the top 30.
Matsuyama, the low amateur of the 2011 Masters, was on the putting green when Phil Mickelson slipped the Green Jacket on Charl Schwartzel’s shoulders.
Matusyama called that 68 in his first Masters “a round I’ll never forget.” Steve Stricker, then a top-10 player in the world, congratulated him as he walked off the 18th green.
“Because of that round, it gave me the confidence that I could play here, I could play professional golf as a career,” he said.Hideki Matsuyama won the low amateur at the 2011 Masters Tournament. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
A decade later, Matsuyama may be a day away from receiving his own.
After a one-hour rain delay, Matsuyama blitzed Augusta National’s second nine to take a four-shot lead into the Masters’ final round. His 65 – the first bogey-free round this week – gave him a 54-hole total of 11-under 205.
Four players – Xander Schauffele, Marc Leishman, Justin Rose and Will Zalatoris – are four shots back. Zalatoris, who didn’t have PGA TOUR status at the start of the season, is seeking his first win. The remainder of the players in the top five are looking to end victory droughts. Schauffele and Rose last won in 2019. Leishman, who has struggled since the pandemic, had his most recent win in January 2020.
Matsuyama has waited longer than all of them. Like Jordan Spieth last week, he’s trying to end a victory drought that’s lasted since 2017. Matsuyama’s last victory was at the World Golf Championship at Firestone, where he shot a final-round 61 to win by five. The following week, he was one shot back entering the final round of the PGA Championship. He bogeyed two of his final three holes to finish three back of Justin Thomas.
He hasn’t won since. Matsuyama, for many years served as his own swing coach, recently enlisted the services of Hidenori Mezawa to help him reclaim his game. Matsuyama reached No. 2 in the world ranking but is now ranked 25th.
“This year's been a struggle,” said Matsuyama, who doesn’t have a top 10 in 10 starts this year. “Haven't really played my best. The last three years, you know, there's been different reasons why I haven't been able to win. But this year, starting early in the year, I have a coach with me now from Japan. It's been a great help, a great benefit. Things that I was feeling in my swing, I could talk to him about that, and he was giving me good -- he always gives me good feedback. He has a good eye.”
That 2017 PGA Championship remains Matsuyama’s last top-10 in a major. Perhaps a return to Augusta National, where has finished in the top 20 in five of his last six appearances, is what he needed. Matsuyama remembers watching the Masters on TV as a young boy in Japan. Tiger Woods’ chip-in on 16 in 2005 remains a special memory.
Hideki Matsuyama is looking to become Japan's first men's major champion. 🇯🇵— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) April 11, 2021
A look at his rise to International stardom. ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/7WfKebeBGt
Alister Mackenzie’s design plays into Matsuyama’s strength, as well. The phrase “second-shot golf course” is synonymous with Augusta National, where players can separate themselves on the reachable par-5s and steep slopes funnel accurate shots close to the hole.
There are few iron players better than Matsuyama on the PGA TOUR. He’s finished in the top 10 in Strokes Gained: Approach in each of the previous seven seasons, the longest active streak on TOUR.
He showed it again with his play over Saturday’s final eight holes. Matsuyama’s final shot before the one-hour rain delay was a tee shot that sailed well right of the 11th fairway. He called it “probably the worst shot I hit all week.” But after an hour of playing games on his cell phone during the delay, Matsuyama was near-perfect. He birdied 11 and 12 before hitting a 5-iron to 6 feet for an eagle at 15. An 8-iron to 4 feet and pitching wedge to 10 feet set up birdies on the next two holes.
Augusta National is a place where players can get on a run, which may be the hardest part of holding on to a four-shot lead. Matsuyama pulled away with his second-nine 30 on Saturday. In the first round, Rose played a 10-hole stretch in 9 under to shoot 65 on Thursday.
Difficult conditions this week, including firm greens and a swirling wind, have brought some of the game’s best ball-strikers to the top of the leaderboard. Rose, who recently reunited with swing coach Sean Foley, is a former U.S. Open champion. He had a four-year stretch from 2012-15 where he ranked no worse than sixth in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green.
Zalatoris’s iron play was the stuff of legend even when he was a teenager. He’s fifth in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green this season. Schauffele’s well-rounded game has made him one of the game’s most consistent performers over the last year. He has seven top-10s in majors, including five top-fives, since 2017. Leishman, who grew up in a windy part of Australia, loves shaping shots in the wind. And Corey Conners, who’s alone in sixth, five shots off the lead, has ranked in the top 15 of both Strokes Gained: Approach and Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee in each of the past three seasons.
They’ll be chasing perhaps the most consistent iron player on the PGA TOUR, though.
“I did play well today,” said Matsuyama. “My game plan was carried out, and hopefully tomorrow I can continue good form.”