No faking it: Matsuyama torches Firestone for 61

By Will GrayAugust 6, 2017, 11:34 pm

AKRON, Ohio – Hideki Matsuyama is the king of post-shot misdirection.

Watch a look of disgust creep across his face after a 7-iron from the fairway, and you might expect the ball to end up in a greenside bunker. But watch it enough times and you’ll know to look for it about 15 feet from the hole.

The Japanese phenom sets a high bar for himself, and he has already been able to match or exceed expectations several times during a brief career. But the performance Matsuyama authored Sunday at Firestone Country Club en route to torching the field at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational was his biggest head-fake ever.

As anyone who watched his warm-up session can attest, Matsuyama was entirely out of sorts just minutes before heading to his final-round tee time. Iron shots were sprayed, and drives sailed wildly off-target.

“Last night after the round, I went to the range and hit it really well and had a lot of confidence. Then I came to the golf course this morning and I don’t know where it went,” Matsuyama said through an interpreter. “It was probably the worst warm-up I’ve ever had on a tournament that I’ve won. I was shocked.”

That uneasy feeling extended to the opening tee shot, which he pulled well left. But after that, according to Matsuyama, “something clicked.”

Four hours later, he was putting the finishing touches on a bogey-free 61 that tied the course record, gave him his second WGC win of the season and left him five shots clear of his nearest competitor.

“I did hit some good shots, but I was nervous all the way around because I really wasn’t sure of my swing today,” Matsuyama said.

Uncertainty in mid-motion is a familiar fear among Tour pros, but during a seemingly flawless 61? Those are moves that would make Barry Sanders blush.

Matsuyama started the day two shots off the lead, a deficit he quickly erased with a chip-in eagle on the second hole. Another birdie followed on the next hole, and by the time Matsuyama made the turn in 5-under 30 he had one hand wrapped around the trophy.


WGC-Bridgestone Invitational: Articles, photos and videos


Granted, it was hardly a done deal given Matsuyama’s recent summer stretch. He was clearly the top player in the world to close 2016, winning four times worldwide including a seven-shot romp against an elite field in Shanghai. He successfully defended his title in Phoenix in February, but since then he has piled up close calls.

Matsuyama couldn’t chase down Brooks Koepka at Erin Hills, and his chances of winning The Open abruptly ended when he blasted his tee shot out of bounds on the opening hole of the final round.

“It’s tough to be able to putt well and hit good golf shots all at the same time,” Matsuyama said. “Even after that good run, I hoped I could continue on but it didn’t happen and I was hoping to do better.”

Given another crack on a big stage, Matsuyama barely broke a sweat while vanquishing an elite field and adding his name to the storied history at Firestone that includes the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods.

“Once he gets going, he just keeps the hammer down and keeps it going. It’s very impressive,” said Rory McIlroy, who won here in 2014 and tied for fifth this week. “I mean, he’s won one WGC in China, he’s probably going to win another one here. That’s sort of the caliber of player he is. I expect him to be right up there next week as well.”

If there’s ever a blueprint for shooting a course record, Matsuyama happened to have one in his back pocket. He had a front-row seat four years ago when Woods shot a 61 on the South Course, a performance that seemed equally effortless and led to a seven-shot win.

“I just couldn’t believe it that anyone could shoot a 61 on this golf course,” Matsuyama said. “And then from that point, to work hard and to be able to do it today is a dream come true.”

True to his nature, though, Matsuyama said he downplayed expectations entering the week. He returned home to Japan after his disappointing final round at Royal Birkdale, and he has logged hours and hours on the range this week in Northeast Ohio trying to groove his swing.

The product of those efforts reinforced the notion that Matsuyama’s best can be matched by few – poor warm-up be damned.

“I worked hard early in the week, and every day I seemed to get closer and closer to where I wanted to be,” Matsuyama said.

The victory vaults Matsuyama back into the Player of the Year discussion, and it instantly makes him one of the favorites for the season’s final major next week at Quail Hollow.

It’s a course where he’s expected to thrive, but perhaps the thing that should strike the most fear into his competition would be another batch of one-armed finishes, mid-shot grimaces and haphazard range sessions.

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.



The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”



Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.