Matsuyama (67) jumps out to early Players lead

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – One of golf’s rising stars has an early lead at The Players Championship – although it might not be the one you’d expect.

With Rory McIlroy two shots back and Jordan Spieth struggling, Hideki Matsuyama grabbed the top spot at TPC Sawgrass with a 5-under 67.

One of the PGA Tour’s best ball-strikers, Matsuyama thrived despite finding only 12 of 18 greens in regulation. The key to his round was putting, as the 23-year-old – who ranks fourth in strokes gained tee-to-green this season, but 114th in strokes gained putting – needed only 26 putts and converted six different putts over 7 feet in length.

“I putted very well today. That was the difference,” Matsuyama said through a translator. “Probably starting from last week I started putting a little bit better, and it just carried over into today. I was very happy about that.”

Matsuyama won his match-play group last week at TPC Harding Park before succumbing, as six others did, to Rory McIlroy. It marked his fifth straight top-25 finish and moved Matsuyama to No. 14 in the world, the highest he has been since his breakthrough win last summer at The Memorial.

While a strong performance on the Stadium Course will likely vault the Japanese sensation into discussions alongside McIlroy and Spieth, Matsuyama insists that he’s still chasing his major-winning peers.

“I’m not even close to those guys, Rory and Jordan,” he said. “I just need to practice more and hopefully soon I’ll be able to play at the same level that they do.”