Hideki Matsuyama shines at home, Jin Young Ko keeps cruising, rising stars take the next step at Q-School and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:
The dream year for Hideki Matsuyama continues.
Quiet for a few months after he became the first Japanese male to win a major at the Masters, the subdued superstar roared home with three birdies and an eagle Sunday to capture the Zozo Championship in front of the home fans. It was the first time Matsuyama had won in his homeland since 2016, and his rockstar status just rose a few more levels.
Unfortunately, on-site, it wasn’t the kind of hero’s reception he would have received in non-COVID times. But this was still quite a scene on the 72nd hole, which Matsuyama eagled to win by five shots over Cameron Tringale and Brendan Steele:
“It was one of my biggest goals to win in front of the Japanese fans here,” he said.
Though Matsuyama might never be the most charismatic champion, the victory, his seventh on Tour, was a deeply personal triumph and a fitting capstone to his life-changing year. It's also the widest we've seen him smile ... ever, maybe?
One of the biggest golf stories of the year has been Japan’s golden campaign.
Think about it:
• Tsubasa Kajitana took home the Augusta National Women’s Amateur
• Matsuyama delivered at the Masters
• Tournament officials successfully staged an Olympics amid COVID
• Mone Inami grabbed the silver medal
• Keita Nakajima ascended to the No. 1 amateur spot
• And then Matsuyama dazzled at home at the Zozo
That doesn’t even include Yuka Saso, who is half Japanese, breaking through at the U.S. Women’s Open, or Nasa Hataoka twice adding to her win total on the LPGA.
What’s the reason for so much successive success?
Coincidental timing, surely, especially since Matsuyama’s career had seemingly stalled since 2017. But there is a bevy of young, talented Japanese amateurs in the pipeline – they represent three of the top 12 in the world rankings – and also those, like Takumi Kanaya, who tied for seventh at the Zozo, just starting out.
Now 29, Matsuyama has undoubtedly inspired the next generation of Japanese players, and the environment in the golf-mad country is conducive for even more growth.
Meet the new No. 1. Same as the old No. 1.
That’s Jin Young Ko, who kept right on rolling at the BMW Ladies Championship, where she overcame a four-shot deficit in the final round to shoot 64 and prevail in a playoff.
That’s now four wins in her last seven starts (and two in a row) for Ko, who leapfrogged Nelly Korda and returned to the top spot in the world for the first time since late June. With 21 of her last 25 rounds in the 60s, Ko is now 90 under par during that stretch and – without a doubt – the player to beat over the final few events.
Her timing couldn’t have been better.
Just as we’d started to proclaim that Korda was the dominant force for the foreseeable future, Ko now leads the Race to the CME Globe and the Player of the Year standings (by 15 points) with only two tournaments remaining.
After this latest victory, Ko opened up about a dark period in her year, when she (relatively) struggled with her swing and had lost her grandmother. She talked about how, during the first major of the year at the ANA, she slept only a few hours a night because she was crying so much.
“I came to think, What’s the use of all this?” she said. “I was very skeptical about why I was playing golf when I couldn’t be there for my grandmother. ... I really place a high value on happiness. Golf is a means to get there; it’s not an end for me. So at the time, I became really doubtful about why I was playing golf. But I think time heals everything.”
The second stage of Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying School – the make-or-break event for any Tour hopeful – wrapped up over the weekend. There are plenty of notable names who will be duking it out on the developmental circuit next year. Such as:
• Mike Visacki, the viral Monday qualifier from Tampa, who needed a 5-under inward nine to claim his spot (with a timely reminder that Justin Thomas cut Visacki a check this year to help fund his dream)
• Will Gordon, the former Vanderbilt stud who we’ve admiringly referred to as “Baby Brooks” in this space
• Tom Lovelady, the former Alabama teammate of JT who stepped away from the game at the beginning of 2020, only to be drawn back in
• Jonathan Brightwell and Quade Cummins, two burly boys who helped propel Oklahoma to the 2021 NCAA finals
• Andy Ogletree, the 2019 U.S. Amateur champion, as well as his opponent that year, John Augenstein
• Albin Choi, the former hotshot-turned-Sungjae Im caddie-turned-mini-tour player
• Jonathan Byrd, the five-time Tour winner who has made 434 career starts but went through the motions again to get one step closer to the big stage. Respect.
On the women’s side, there were just as many intriguing storylines for players who got through to the final stage of LPGA Q-Series. Former South Carolina star Pauline Roussin-Bouchard medaled at second stage, with Linn Grant, Florida State's Beatrice Wallin, Duke's Gina Kim, Houston's Karen Fredgaard, both Hou sisters (Arizona) and Arkansas' Brooke Matthews getting through. Also advancing to final stage was American amateur Alexa Pano, but don't get your hopes up – her age waiver has already been denied by the LPGA, so she's stuck on the Symetra for 2022. Same for 16-year-old Xiaowen Yin of China, who finished second at second stage.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Ageless Wonder: Bernhard Langer. Just when you thought it was safe to start writing him off, the 64-year-old prevailed in a playoff at the Dominion Energy Charity Classic, ending the longest winless drought of his senior career (34 starts) and becoming the oldest champion on the over-50 circuit. It was Langer’s 42nd senior title, moving him within three of Hale Irwin’s all-time mark, and he’s now won each year since he’s joined the Champions in 2007. The end-of-season series might have to be renamed for him, too: The five-time Schwab Cup winner extended his lead atop the standings with just two weeks left to play.
Not Always So Easy: Phil Mickelson. A few weeks after we proclaimed that Mickelson had a chance to become the senior GOAT, he crashed down to earth with a tie for 47th (after a closing quadruple-bogey 9!) in the third-to-last senior event of the year. For the week he found just 35% of the fairways ... which won’t play anywhere, regardless of the age restrictions. Lefty summed up his Champions philosophy thusly:
Long Time Coming: Jeff Winther. The 33-year-old Dane is practically ancient by today’s standards, but he broke through at the Mallorca Open for his first European Tour title. In the third round he fired a 62, becoming the first player on the circuit this season to card three rounds of 62 or better. Being unafraid to take it deep is a great attribute in today’s game.
Tweet of the Week: Jared Doerfler. This will hit you squarely in the feels:
Sorry, Newbies: Fall series winners. This sleepy portion of the schedule is usually kind to newcomers and journeymen, but not this year. Or at least not yet. The first five winners of the Tour season (Homa, Burns, Im, McIlroy, Matsuyama) have all been ranked inside the top 50 in the world ranking, the longest streak to begin a campaign since 2005 (10 weeks). The best players rising to the top? Always a good thing.
One of Us?: Collin Morikawa. There’s nothing in the game more jarring than a shank ... and now Morikawa – the best iron player on the planet – now knows how we feel. In the third round of the Zozo he shanked a pitching wedge straight into the trees, leading to a bogey. He said it was the first time in his career that he’s shanked a shot, which is somewhat hard to believe, until you remember that he hits virtually every shot on the screws. All was not lost, however: Morikawa shook off the miscue and tied for seventh, earning enough points to rise to No. 2 in the world rankings. Only Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth ascended to that lofty perch at a younger age than the 24-year-old Morikawa.
One Step Forward, Another ...: Cameron Tringale. The wealthiest player without a Tour win, Tringale held the lead on the back nine in Japan and played the first 16 holes bogey-free. Alas, closing remains a challenge, as he bogeyed the final two and dropped into joint second, five behind. That’s now four career runners-up and his second close call in the past month (T-11 at Sanderson Farms) for a player who has now cleared (gulp) $15.3 million in earnings. Thanks, Tiger.
NSFW: Wilco Nienaber's drive. A big ask for a man with his immense length, but if this guy ever fine-tunes the rest of his game ... sheesh!
Not True, He Says: Pete Cowen. Following McIlroy’s victory at the CJ Cup, there was a report by No Laying Up that he had split with coach Pete Cowen and returned full-time to longtime instructor Michael Bannon. But Cowen, writing for Gulf News, said that simply wasn’t true and that he’d talked to McIlroy as recently as a few days ago. Cowen said he’s tried to get McIlroy back to being a feel player and said he’s proud to have helped guide him to two wins in 14 starts together: “To get that feel back he had to go back to the basic fundamentals of the game which is, hopefully, where I have made a difference.”
What to Watch For: East Lake Cup. On our air Monday through Wednesday, four of the top men’s teams in the country will face off in the stroke play/match play hybrid that has become a fall staple. It’s highly likely, if not probable, that the 2022 NCAA champ will come out the group here: Arizona State, Pepperdine, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Should be some top-tier play on a historic course.
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Xander Schauffele. Less than three months removed from Olympic gold, Schauffele returned to Japan with good vibes: A closing 63 a few days earlier at the CJ Cup, as well as a top 10 in his last appearance at the Zozo. Ah, but that seemingly mattered little against this weak field, as a second-round 74 doomed his week. His T-28 meant that although he has some splashy performances of late – a T-3 at the FedExCup finale, a sterling Ryder Cup debut – he oddly doesn’t have a top-10 in a full-field event since the Scottish Open in July. Sigh.