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.

Getty Images

Aggressiveness pays off for Spieth vs. Schwartzel

By Rex HoggardMarch 21, 2018, 9:32 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – On Tuesday, Jordan Spieth said he hoped this week’s format would free him up and allow him to play more aggressively.

Although that wasn’t the case early in his Day 1 match against Charl Schwartzel, Spieth was able to get his week off to a solid start with a 2-and-1 victory.

After playing his first nine holes in even par, Spieth moved ahead in the match when Schwartzel made bogey at the par-5 12th hole and the American hit his approach at the par-4 13th hole to 3 feet, a shot he said was “pivotal,” and he added another birdie at the 14th hole to pull away.

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Scoring | Group standings

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

“I had a couple of iffy numbers and some swirly winds. I did not play aggressively,” Spieth said of his opening nine. “Once I got a couple numbers where I could put really nice, solid swings on, zeroed in at the target with no worry about anything else around, I did just that and it led to three or four birdies from the eighth hole on. You have to go at flagsticks to make birdies here.”

The early victory puts Spieth on a collision course with Patrick Reed, who also won his first-day match against HaoTong Li, 3 and 2. Spieth and Reed, who are a combined 7-2-2 when teamed together in the Ryder and Presidents Cup, will play each other in the final day of round-robin play on Friday.

Getty Images

List takes Thomas to 18 putting with a wedge

By Rex HoggardMarch 21, 2018, 7:57 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – As he walked off the sixth tee on Wednesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Luke List “swiped” his putter into what he thought was a bush. It was a wall.

List’s putter bent slightly, which meant he wasn’t allowed to employ it the rest of the round. Using a wedge to putt, he lost his opening-day match to Justin Thomas, 2 down.

“Stupid on my part,” List said. “I'll get the club fixed and go on to my next two matches.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Scoring | Group standings

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

Despite his putting disadvantage, List pushed Thomas to the 18th hole thanks to birdies at Nos. 13, 15 and 16, which included a chip-in from 18 feet at 15. Thomas was 3 up with four holes to play and managed to birdie the last, but it was far from stress-free.

“I was thinking about it, how bad that would hurt if I couldn't get it done,” Thomas said. “He hit some great putts and he made some good ones when he needed to.”

The situation also prompted Thomas to change his strategy on the greens, with not nearly as many conceded putts as normal.

“He putted probably two or three putts I wouldn't have made him putt with a putter,” Thomas said. “[No. 13] was a short putt he's probably going to make. It had a lot of break. But 12, that putt was 2 feet straight uphill. But I was like he's got a wedge, so I'm going to make him putt it.”

Getty Images

Group standings at WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 21, 2018, 7:45 pm

Here are the group standings for pool play at the 2018 WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship in Austin, Texas. The player with the most points in each pool advanced to Saturday's Round of 16 in Austin, Texas. Click here for scoring and click here for the bracket.

Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Group 4
(1) D. Johnson: 0-1-0 (2) J. Thomas: 1-0-0 (3) J. Rahm:  (4) J. Spieth: 1-0-0
(32) K. Kisner: 0-0-1 (21) F. Molinari: 1-0-0 (28) K. Aphibarnrat (19) P. Reed: 1-0-0
(38) A. Hadwin: 0-0-1
(48) P. Kizzire: 0-1-0 (43) C. Reavie (34) H. Li: 0-1-0
(52) B. Wiesberger: 1-0-0
(60) L. List: 0-1-0 (63) K. Bradley (49) C. Schwartzel: 0-1-0
Group 5 Group 6 Group 7 Group 8
(5) H. Matsuyama: 1-0-0 (6) R. McIlroy: 0-1-0 (7) S. Garcia (8) J. Day: 1-0-0
(30) P. Cantlay: 0-1-0
(18) B. Harman (20) X. Schauffele (25) L. Oosthuizen: 1-0-0
(46) C. Smith: 1-0-0 (44) J. Vegas (41) D. Frittelli (42) J. Dufner: 0-1-0
(53) Y. Miyazato: 0-1-0 (51) P. Uihlein: 1-0-0 (62) S. Sharma (56) J. Hahn: 0-1-0
Group 9 Group 10 Group 11 Group 12
(9) T. Fleetwood: 0-1-0 (10) P. Casey (11) M. Leishman: 0-1-0 (12) T. Hatton: 1-0-0
(26) D. Berger: 0-1-0 (31) M. Fitzpatrick (23) B. Grace: 0-1-0 (22) C. Hoffman: 0-1-0
(33) K. Chappell: 1-0-0 (45) K. Stanley (35) B. Watson: 1-0-0 (36) B. Steele: 1-0-0
(58) I. Poulter: 1-0-0 (51) R. Henley (64) J. Suri: 1-0-0 (55) A. Levy: 0-1-0
Group 13 Group 14 Group 15 Group 16
(13) A. Noren: 1-0-0 (14) P. Mickelson: 0-1-0 (15) P. Perez: 0-1-0 (16) M. Kuchar: 0-0-1
(29) T. Finau: 1-0-0 (17) R. Cabrera Bello (24) G. Woodland: 0-1-0 (27) R. Fisher: 0-1-0
(39) T. Pieters: 0-1-0 (40) S. Kodaira (37) W. Simpson: 0-1-0 (47) Y. Ikeda: 1-0-0
(61) K. Na: 0-1-0 (59) C. Howell III: 1-0-0 (50) S.W. Kim: 0-1-0 (54) Z. Johnson: 0-0-1
Getty Images

Hot Seat: The driver is burning Tiger

By Randall MellMarch 21, 2018, 6:51 pm

The men’s first major championship of the year is two weeks away, the women’s just a week away.

Here’s our Hot Seat lineup with the approach of the Masters and the ANA Inspiration in mind:

Smoking carbon composites – Tiger Woods

Woods is the betting favorite to win the Masters in most sportsbooks, and while his game is coming together quickly, he won’t be the experts’ pick without getting his driver under control.

The driver looks like the last piece Woods needs to once more become the favorite wherever he goes.

Right now, though, there’s an open wound that needs to be cauterized before he heads to Augusta National.

That double-cross Woods blew into someone’s backyard along the 16th hole Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational came from a reservoir of uncertainty that his driver continues to create. 

Woods has come a long way with his driver. When he pulls it out of the bag, it isn’t like he’s ripping a bandage off anymore, not the way it was three and four years ago. Still, he doesn’t pull that club with the same relish Rory McIlroy does, or Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, for that matter. Physically and psychologically, they’ve got an advantage on him until he does. 

Woods did not qualify for this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship, so he’s got extra time to address his biggest shortcoming.

“Project No. 1 over the next two weeks is going to be the driver,” Golf Channel’s Notah Begay said earlier this week. “Tiger has to focus in on trying to find some way to navigate Augusta National with the driver, because it’s a course that’s going to force you to hit driver.”

Dustin Johnson at the 2018 WGC-Mexico Championship.

Smoldering Tex Mex Tango – Dustin Johnson

The world No. 1 is playing just fine enough since his victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions at year’s start. He’s just been overshadowed by the brilliance of a lot of fellow stars.

With McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Justin Thomas all winning in the last month, with Woods stepping up his game, Johnson has been quietly toiling toward the Masters.

Johnson has won 10 times since Woods' last victory, and yet Woods is the 8-to-1 favorite to win the Masters.

Johnson, McIlroy and Thomas are listed at 10-to-1 by the Westgate Las Vegas SportsBook.

It doesn’t rankle Johnson.

“It’s fine with me,” he said Tuesday. “He’s playing pretty well.”

Even as the defending champ this week at the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Texas, Johnson isn’t center stage, not with McIlroy marching into town off his dominant finish at the API.

Flying relatively under the radar might seem like a comfortable position for a world No. 1, but he won’t stay atop the world rankings for long flying under the radar.

Shanshan Feng during Round 2 at the 2017 Japan Classic.

Rolex Ranking Roast – Shanshan Feng

The women’s Rolex world No. 1 enters the week at the Kia Classic trying to hold off a strong field with the ANA Inspiration looming next week.

The top seven players in the world rankings, and 11 of the top 12, are at Aviara Golf Club in Carlsbad, California.

Feng has quietly reigned atop the world rankings for 19 consecutive weeks, holding off bids to overtake her by No. 2 Lexi Thompson, No. 3 So Yeon Ryu and No. 4 Sung Hyun Park.

They’ve all been close enough in world ranking average this year to take the top spot, but Feng isn’t backing down. She’s winless so far this this year, but she has finished fifth or better in two of her three starts.