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.
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.