Masterful Matsuyama Brings Firestone to its Knees at WGC
With a perfect sense of timing, Hideki Matsuyama brought the Firestone Country Club at Akron, Ohio, to its knees when he recorded a flawless final round of 61 to win the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational by five shots. It was his third victory of the year and his sensational return to form came on the eve of the US PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, the final major of the year.
He began the season with seven worldwide finishes of first or second and then went off the boil. But in recent weeks he has shown signs of recapturing that blistering form and, crucially, he putted brilliantly at Firestone. Matsuyama now has five wins on the PGA Tour to his name and will head to Quail Hollow ready to do battle with Open champion Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, a two-time winner on the course.
The Japanese star began the failing round trailing leader Zach Johnson by two shots but jumped into a share of the lead when he eagled the par-five second hole and birdied the par-four third. He took the lead on his own for the first time when he holed a 15-foot birdie putt at the sixth.
He had a one-shot lead after the 10th over American Charley Hoffman, who climbed the leaderboard with five birdies in his first 11 holes. Zach Johnson was 10 under after nine holes, following two birdies and a bogey on the front nine, while Belgian Thomas Pieters made a birdie at the second but closed the front nine with back-to-back bogeys to fall four off the lead. He eventually finished fourth on eight under par.
Matsuyama added a further five birdies, including three on the bounce at the end of his round, and never looked troubled by either the course or the occasion. His victory means that he and Dustin Johnson have now won the past five World Golf Championship events.
He tied the course record held by Jose Maria Olazabal, Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia and overtakes Spieth at the head of the FedEx Cup rankings. "I played with Tiger four years ago when he shot 61, so I knew 61 was the number today," said Matsuyama. “I was thinking about that at 16 – I knew if I birdied 16, 17 and 18, I could get there.”
Johnson finished second at 11 under after firing a two-under 68. Hoffman, fresh from finishing second at the Canadian Open, finished third at 10 under. Hoffman was one of the few to go for the green on the long, difficult par-five 16th, which measures over 600yards. He later admitted that he decided to take the risk because he was “tired of finishing second”.
“I'm trying to win a tournament," Hoffman said. "I'm tired of finishing second.” He hit a glorious three wood onto the green and over the back into light rough, chipped weakly to 15 feet and made par anyway. He wound up with a 66 to finish third, but it should be enough to secure his place in the Presidents Cup team.
Matsuyama's final birdie broke by one shot the lowest final round by a winner at Firestone. Fulton Allem shot 62 when he won the old World Series of Golf in 1993.
He stays at No. 3 in the world by a fraction behind Spieth, though he takes plenty of momentum into the US PGA Championship next week as he tries to become the first player from Japan to win a major. "I haven't really played well at Quail Hollow, but hopefully I can keep my game up and do well there," Matsuyama said. "All I can do is my best. I know a lot of us have tried from Japan to win majors. Hopefully, some day it will happen."
McIlroy started three shots off the lead and birdied three of the first six holes, only to make three bogeys in the following nine. A birdie at the last saw him finish one under for the day, a distant nine shots behind Matsuyama. He later said that he was happy with the way he was hitting the ball, and it is true that he drove the ball magnificently all week long. But he continues to struggle on the greens, and will know that he has no chance of winning his fifth major unless he starts to hole a few more putts.
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