Where to begin? It was a rollercoaster of a Sunday, with a tightly packed leaderboard of big-name contenders — including Masters champions Bubba Watson and Adam Scott — that shined before crashing and falling out of the mix as they came down the stretch. In the end, it was the 22-year-old star from Japan, Hideki Matsuyama, who upstaged everyone and beat Kevin Na in the first extra hole in the sudden death playoff.
As the leaders were midway through the front nine, I was trying to decide who to follow. Na, who started the day trailing 54-hole leader Watson by seven strokes, was making a run, so it seemed like the logical thing to catch up with him for the last few holes. I found him on the par-3 16th, where he two-putted for a pretty routine par.
On the 17th, he yelled at his drive, “Down! Down!” He didn’t want to hit 3-wood because he needed driver to have a good look at making birdie, so he hit the driver easy and caught it perfectly. His ball went through the fairway and trickled into the large bunker on the left.
“I wasn’t worried about it until it landed and it just kept rolling,” said Na, after the final round in regulation. “I must have had a hard bounce and it rolled just in the bunker.
“It was not an easy shot out of that bunker. My caddie tried to make it sound like it was an easy shot, ‘Oh, no worries. It’s in the bunker. It’s fine.'”
Na hit a fantastic shot out of the bunker, but he wasn’t sure it’d be so perfect at first. While it was in the air, he hollered (again), “Down, down!” It listened, ending up about 18 feet from the hole.
“The putt was such a slippery putt I couldn’t get aggressive with it,” said Na. “I was trying to die it in the hole, and I hit a good speed putt. And it was one of those that’s almost impossible to make. I was pleased with a two-putt par.”
Then, on 18 he set himself up with a great drive down the middle.
“That right-to-left wind sets up perfect for my draw,” he said.
But he wasn’t committed to his second shot and backed off. He re-set and this time he was ready, but he leaf flew over his ball and he lost his focus, fatting his shot way short of the green. He left himself with a 40-yard pitch to the green.
“And I hit a great chip up there, and then that four-and-a-half feet, that downhill, I mean, you could have four, five feet coming back easily,” said Na. “But as soon as I hit it, I hit a perfect putt and it was a good feeling to see that ball go in. ”
Na finished over two hours before the leaders. He signed for the only bogey-free score of the day — and the lowest, with an eight-under 64.
As the leaders made the turn, Watson bogeyed the 9th, giving Matsuyama the outright lead for the first time as he played 10. Watson, however, recovered with a birdie on the 10th to get back atop the leaderboard.
Matsuyama missed the fairway on the reachable-in-two par-5 11th, which meant he was going to have to layup. His ball was nestled so far down in the thick, sticky rough that his wedge shot out of it barely made it over the creek that zig-zags through the fairway.
Matsuyama was playing with Adam Scott, a very comfortable pairing for the 22 year old, who was partnered with Scott in each of the Presidents Cup matches at Muirfield Village last fall. (In his first start in the biennial U.S. vs. International matches, he went 1-3-1 here.)
“(Playing here in the Presidents Cup) had a great effect on how I played this week, especially I was able to learn the course at the Presidents Cup last year,” said Matsuyama through his interpreter.
“And even more so than being able to be paired with Adam Scott. I mean, it was just the luck of the draw. But to be able to play with Adam, who I played with a lot during the Presidents Cup, made it a lot easier for me to play today. I owe a lot to him.”
Meanwhile, Scott was in the mix for a bit there, too. He had also been forced to layup after an errant drive on the 11th and he hit a decent third shot into the green, but was still far outside Matsuyama, who had stuck it to eight feet.
However, Scott drained his 25-footer for birdie to momentarily tie Matsuyama for the lead at 14-under.
Watson was playing in the last group behind them, along with Scott Langley, who unsurprisingly fell down the leaderboard rather quickly and posted a seven-over 79 to finish tied for 28th. Naturally, the long-hitting Watson birdied the 11th to retake the outright lead at 15-under.
At the same time, Scott ran into some trouble on the difficult par-3 12th. He took an aggressive line or he just pushed it. While his ball stayed dry, it was embedded in the hazard and he didn’t have a shot. Scott walked back to the drop area, hit it on and two-putted for a double-bogey. That basically killed any momentum he had to keep up with Matsuyama and Watson.
As Watson waited for Scott to drop, he walked down toward the group of media that was watching from above (but a little bit aways from the tee box). He wanted to know what was happening as he took bites out of his turkey and cheese sandwich. He was growing impatient because of the wait and commented on how quickly they played the third round — “in four hours!”
Matsuyama parred the 12th with a routine two-putt after knocking it to the middle of the green. Then, on the short par-4 13th, he piped a drive and left himself with 113 yards. From there, he threw a dart to about six feet and rolled in the putt for birdie to tie Watson for the lead again at 15-under.
This is the point in the tournament where things started to get shaky and Kevin Na had to be feeling pretty good sitting in the clubhouse as he waited to see how things would pan out.
Matsuyama hit his tee shot in the middle of the fairway on the short par-4 14th. From 121 yards, he pushed his approach to the right and it nearly found the creek, but stayed up on the bank. He hit a decent chip, but he didn’t have much green to work with and it stopped about eight feet past the hole. He missed the par save and dropped back to 14-under.
Meanwhile, Watson was having his own problems with the hole, hitting an errant drive that forced him to punch out sideways. He bogeyed the 14th to drop back to 14-under and stay tied with Matsuyama.
At this point, it looked like a two-horse race. Scott had rebounded from his double with a birdie on the following hole, but then he jumped on the bogey drain for the next three holes, nos. 14-16, and the world no. 1 fell out of the running to win for the second week in a row.
“The whole thing is frustrating as I stand here right now,” said Scott after posting a 1-under 71, 10-under total. “But everyone’s going to feel like that. We all could have done something different. If we all did, who knows what the result would be.”
Matsuyama pulled his drive on the reachable-in-two par-5 15th. Uh-oh. He didn’t look too phased, though. In fact, he always kind of has the same blank expression on his face, which doesn’t change much. He punched out and then from 140 yards, he took dead aim and hit a beautiful shot to three feet, which he converted for birdie. Now, he was 15-under and led outright.
Around the same time, things got a bit uglier (yet more exciting in a way). Bubba hit his drive so far right it ended up in someone’s backyard off the tee on 15. (There are some really nice houses on that hole.)
“I don’t see the swing as being loose,” said Watson, who notched his 7th top-10 finish of the season. “I just see that I made one bad decision today and cost me two shots and third place. 20 slots better than my previous finish here, so that’s good.”
He re-teed with a 4-wood this time and found the fairway. From there, he was lying four, but he laid up instead of going for the green.
“It was 260-something, 263 adjusted, into a breeze,” he said. “I felt like I had a better opportunity with a wedge hitting it in there. I can’t see the flag from there. That’s the problem. A lot of these things just don’t set up well for me coming down the stretch here.
“And that one, 4-wood is not enough off the tee to be able to see the pin. And so going forward from there I couldn’t see the pin. I just felt like if I could somehow wedge it close, make bogey, I was still in it.”
Watson wasn’t aware, though, what was happening on the hole ahead. Matsuyama’s tee shot on the par-3 16th got caught in a gust of wind and came up just short in the water hazard. He took a penalty shot and from the drop zone, he took a safe line and left himself with 20 feet to save bogey. He missed and walked off the green with a double-bogey, dropping to 13-under, which tied him with Na, who was safely in the clubhouse.
“I knew the wind was coming from the right,” said Matsuyama. “And I just hit a bad shot. The wind took it a little more than even I thought. But I was still in it. So I was only one back.”
Matsuyama found the fairway on 17, but his second shot didn’t turn out so well — going a little long toward the left side of the green, while the pin was tucked in the right side. His chip was decent, but he still had a 15-footer to save par. He missed and settled with a bogey, dropping to 12-under for the tournament.
Meanwhile, Na was hitting balls at the driving range awaiting a potential playoff, but it was starting to look like it might turn into a backdoor win for him.
Matsuyama pounded his driver, which he pushed a little, but got a good bounce left into the fairway. At first, he thought it was bad, so he lightly slammed his driver into the teeing ground, causing the club to break in half. Whoops. (For the record, Matsuyama could have replaced it for the playoff if he had a back-up one in his locker, but he didn’t.)
“I was really shocked, because I didn’t I really didn’t hit it that hard,” said Matsuyama when asked for his reaction when it snapped.
Added Jack Nicklaus, the tournament host: “He hit it. It was a little bit more to drop, but it wasn’t — it was not a whack.”
First things first, though, Matsuyama needed to birdie the 18th to force a playoff with Na. In each of the previous three rounds, he had done just that — and it’s not an easy hole, so the chances of him doing it for a fourth consecutive day didn’t seem good. But the fearless 22 year old stepped up to his ball and took “dead aim.”
“At the 18th, I hit my tee shot in the fairway, what I had to do,” he said. “And the second shot, I had to take — I knew I had to make birdie, so I took dead aim for the pin.
“The wind was coming from the right, so I just hit it up, just my normal shot, let the wind take it a little bit. And I didn’t know it was that close until actually I got up onto the green.”
Matsuyama had knocked it to five feet. Naturally, he drained the putt for an improbable birdie.
It was onto extra innings — or rather, holes. And Matsuyama was without a driver as he went to replay the par-4 18th.
“I didn’t have a spare driver in my locker,” he said. “I didn’t have time, of course, to go get one. And I did okay with the 3-wood.”
Matsuyama had the honor and teed it up with his 3-wood, pushing it into the right fairway bunker. Na got quick and pulled it into the creek guarding the left side of the fairway. Advantage: Matsuyama.
Na ended up having somewhat of a shot because he was able to drop on the other side of the creek (props to his caddie Kenny Harms for pointing that out). He hit it short right of the green in the gangly rough, but you could still see the top of his ball, so he would have a shot to get his somewhat close. He chipped it to 8 feet, but he ended up never having to putt it.
From the bunker, Matsuyama pulled his approach left into the gallery. He chipped it to 10 feet and drained the par putt. Game. Set. Match.
“I was hoping I could get an extra hole in, but he hit an unbelievable putt,” said Na, who will move inside the top 50 in the world, which qualifies him for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in two weeks. “That was not an easy downhill slope putt. So he deserved it.”
At 22 years, 3 months and 7 days, Matsuyama became the fourth Japanese-born player to win on the PGA Tour, joining Ryuji Imada (2008 AT&T Classic), Shigeki Maruyama (2011 Greater Milwaukee Open, 2002 Byron Nelson Championship, 2003 Wyndham Championship) and Isao Aoki (1983 Sony Open in Hawaii).
“To win my first PGA TOUR event is enough, but to win it here at Mr. Nicklaus’ course, it really gives me a lot of confidence now going on,” said Matsuyama, who has five victories on the Japan Tour. “And hopefully I’ll be able to use this week as a stepping stone to further my career.”
Matsuyama missed the cut at the Masters earlier this year, but last year, he made a good run at his three major starts, finishing T10 at the U.S. Open, T6 at the Open Championship and T19 at the PGA Championship.
The future appears bright for the young man from Japan. Even Jack thinks so.
“I thought his game has been pretty good for a long time,” said Nicklaus. “I remember watching him before the Presidents Cup here last year. I saw him play in a couple of tournaments, and I loved his tempo.
“I think his size is larger than most of your Japanese players. Jumbo (Ozaki) was a big guy. Aoki was tall but not as strong. Most of the guys that come from Japan are a little smaller. (Ryo) Ishikawa is a little smaller guy.
“He has the ability to be able to play golf courses well within himself and doesn’t have to push for distance and strength. So his tempo is so good and his composure is he’s very calm. When he knocked the ball in the water at 16 today, you just saw him bear down and try to play a better shot. I thought that showed a lot about him.
“And I just think you’ve just seen the start of what’s going to be truly one of your world’s great players over the next 10 to 15 years.”