Two years ago on a frustrating Sunday afternoon, Hideki Matsuyama couldn’t run down Tiger Woods at the Zozo Championship.
That day belonged to Woods and he’d notch historic PGA Tour win No. 82.
Hideki promised his Japanese fans he’d be back and that he’d win the next year. There was no “next year” in Japan (2020), thanks to that nasty pandemic but two years later the reigning Masters champion kept that promise and came through with a stylish victory on a perfect Sunday at the Accordia Golf Narashino.
There was a huge turnout, Japanese golf fans lined the fairways of the ultra-lush, highly-manicured grounds outside the city of Chiba. Their man, Hideki, held a nervous one-shot lead over journeyman Cameron Tringale heading into the final 18 holes.
Matsuyama has Super Hero status in his country, thanks to that Masters win last April. On the other hand, Tringale had played in 313 tournaments (now 314) on the PGA Tour without a win. He’s improving, but victory has been evasive and he would have another chance albeit a tough one, considering who he was up against.
Hideki was nervous — five straight pars to start his day in front of an overflow crowd, politely cheering their guy on. Up ahead Brendan Steele birdied four of his first seven to get to 10-under and was applying some heat from in front.
The Green Jacket holder jump-started his day at the 587-yard par five sixth. He reached the green in two then sent a 45-footer heading toward the hole — it found the bottom of the cup for eagle and suddenly he was 12-under and the galleries were absolutely delighted. Tringale made birdie to get to 10-under, just two back. At the short par four eighth, Hideki’s approach wasn’t up to his standards — 20 feet with wedge in hand. Then came an unthinkable Matsuyama three-putt. He blew his birdie putt six feet past the cup and missed coming back. Tringale ran in a birdie from 10 feet and suddenly it was game on — tied at 11-under.
At the par four 10th, Tringale made birdie to take the lead at 12-under. It got very quiet as Japan’s Superman was trailing.
Don’t tug on Superman’s cape.
Hideki responded with a curling 30-foot left-to-righter at 11 to end Tringale’s short stay in the solo lead. A fist pump from the normally stoic Matsuyama got the crowd going. At the short 13th (136-yards) Hideki’s wedge stopped within 10 feet and another birdie got him to 13-under — the lead was his once more. He added a super effort from 31-feet at the 15th to get to 14-under. The lead was two with three to play.
Matsuyama had a chance to absolutely slam the door on Tringale at the 17th. Both caught flyers, went long and found themselves with tough pitches. Tringale’s went 10 feet past the hole, Hideki wound up with six feet for his par. After Tringale missed, surely Matsuyama would make his and up the lead to three. Nope. Two bogeys but still a comfortable two-shot lead heading to the par five 18th.
Matsuyama hit a perfect three-wood, Tringale’s drive sailed right, leaving him a tough second. Hideki had just 236 in, took out his five-wood and hit the shot of the tournament. The five-wood looked like it was laser-guided. He nearly jarred it for two and it stopped just 15 feet behind the hole. Tringale’s second ended it all for him, left himself in a tough spot, couldn’t get his third on the green, basically assuring Hideki the victory.
Matsuyama put an exclamation point on the win — he holed the 15-footer for his second eagle of the day for 65, and a 15-under par total for the championship. Tringale’s bogey dropped him back to 10-under where he finished tied with Steele, who didn’t do much after that hot front nine.
“It is just great to be able to play in front of so many fans here in Japan and to be able to play well. I’m thrilled,” said Matsuyama, who finally showed off a big smile. Hideki admitted he was feeling the pressure all day. When did he finally relax a bit? “When I hit the second at 18,” he added.
And what a second it was. Those who saw it will be telling their friends about it for the next year or so. And it’s been one heck of a year for Matsuyama, whose major sent a nation into a frenzy and now this win to start his 2022 season.
“Yeah, really cool for him (Matsuyama),” said Tringale, who acknowledged the fans all week, giving them the old thumbs-up after all the polite applause. “An incredible second shot and he holed the putt — it was storybook,” Tringale added.
It was the first chapter in Matsuyama’s 2022 storybook.
And it was eagle-inspired.