Matsuyama Survives Late Scare to Win Green Jacket
IT HAS been a long time coming for Hideki Matsuyama, and there must have been times when he wondered if it ever would. He very nearly threw away The Masters when he hit his approach into the water at the 15th but held on as Xander Schauffele came to grief at the par-three 16th.
And finally, the 29-year-old became the first Japanese golfer to win a men’s major with a one-stroke victory over Will Zalatoris to secure The Masters 10 years after his first appearance in the tournament as an amateur.
He began the day with a four-shot lead and it was reduced to one early on but in truth Matsuyama deserved his victory. A final round of 73 gave him a total of 278, 10 under par.
We also witnessed the emergence of a potential superstar in Zalatoris, playing in his first Masters and only his second major. He came into the week with five top-10 finishes to his credit this season, and a solitary missed cut. The 24-year-old is already well inside the top 50 in the world rankings. He said that he had proved to himself that he was able to compete at this level. Did he ever?
It is not so long ago that he was ranked outside the top 1,500. His progress has been remarkable and he walks away from Augusta National with a runner-up finish to his name.
But this week was all about Matsuyama.
Before he had completed the opening hole, Matsuyama’s four-shot lead had already been cut to two, with Zalatoris making birdies at the first and second. And when the Japanese golfer dropped a shot at the first he was only one ahead.
Zalatoris had been as cool as a cucumber all week and needed to keep it together after dropping a shot at the third following a poor approach. And with Matsuyama making a birdie at the second he was back to 11 under and leading by three from Zalatoris and playing partner Xander Schauffele, who also made birdie. Zalatoris had said before his round that he had learnt he was good enough to compete with the best in the world. He now had to prove it. No rookie has won The Masters since Fuzzy Zoeller way back in 1979.
Marc Leishman and Justin Rose had started the day at seven under. Both hit dreadful approaches at the opening hole but picked up routine birdies at the par five second, but Rose let another go at the third.
The best move from the chasing pack was coming from Jon Rahm. Much fancied before the tournament began, he had opened with three rounds of 72. But he birdied the first and made an eagle at the second on his way to an outward nine of 32. And when he added another birdie at the treacherous 12th he was five under. He was unable to take advantage of the par-five 13th but did birdie the 15th to move to six under. Rahm would par in for a 66 and a total of 282.
“I didn’t have a number in mind today but knew I needed a record-breaking score,” he said. “I started off great and played really well all day but I knew it was going to be a tall order. Spaniards seem to do really well here. I have a better game plan to tackle this course now. When I first came here I hit a lot of balls in the water. I am now just looking forward to getting home to my wife and new baby."
Schauffele nearly drove the 350-yard third but still dropped a shot to fall four behind. And another went at the next. He was now five behind, his chances disappearing faster than a 400-yard Bryson DeChambeau drive. And it went from bad to worse with a dreadful double bogey at the fifth. His race was surely already run but he birdied the seventh and eighth to get back to six under.
Zalatoris reduced the deficit to two again when he birdied the par-five eighth. He then parred the ninth to go out in 34. Trust your correspondent - he would have bitten off your right arm if you had offered him that at the start of the day. Going into the back nine he was two behind but three ahead of Rahm and Rose, who were tied for third. If Matsuyama was feeling any pressure he wan’t showing it, a birdie at the eighth taking him to 12 under.
Matsuyama’s four-shot lead was restored as Zalatoris bogeyed the 10th and when the Japanese golfer hit a magnificent approach to the ninth to lead bay five, it was his tournament to lose. He was 13 under par and in cruise control.
And that lead was extended to six when Zalatoris dropped a shot at the 12th.
Jordan Spieth frittered shots away early in his round but birdies at the ninth, 10th and 13th got him back to six under, alongside Rahm and Schauffele.
Several players had come to grief at the par-three 12th. Matsuyama arrived on the tee knowing that if he could get through the hole with a par then the Green Jacket was almost certainly going to be his. He found the back bunker and dropped a shot - it was only his sixth bogey of the week, by far the fewest of anybody in the field. Schauffele birdied the hole to join Zalatoris on seven under. Remarkably, Spieth collected another birdie at the 14th and also moved to seven under.
Matsuyama got a massive break at the par-five 13th when a wild drive into the trees hit a branch and came back into play. The sensible option would have been to lay up but he chose to go for the green and was incredibly fortunate not to put his approach in the azaleas. Playing partner Schauffele rifled his approach to 12 feet to set up a golden eagle opportunity. But Matsuyama played a fabulous recovery to birdie the hole and move back to 13 under and Schauffele also had to settle for a birdie.
Matsuyama 13 under, Schauffele eight under, Spieth and Zalatoris seven under.
Schauffele, who must have been bitterly regretting his earlier struggles, hit his approach at the 14th to two feet to set up his third birdie on the trot and move to nine under. Matsuyama’s lead was back to four. Zalatoris still wasn’t finished either, a birdie at the par-five 15th moving him to eight under.
It wasn’t over yet. Not by a long shot. Matsuyama, having managed to get away with murder at the 13th, also went for the par-five 15th in two and his approached cleared the green and found the water. He now faced a near-impossible fourth shot. Up ahead, Spieth birdied the 17th to go to eight under and all of a sudden he had renewed interest in this Masters. Matsuyama faced a 50-yard pitch shot with water waiting at the front of the green. He had to ensure that he took nothing worse than a six. To his enormous relief, the ball finished in the fringe, about 20 feet from the hole. Schauffele, meanwhile, found a greenside bunker with his approach and came out to six inches for yet another birdie. Now he was 10 under par. With Matsuyama making a bogey, his lead was down to two.
And Zalatoris retained his interest with a birdie at the 17th. It was breathless stuff. Matsuyama 12 under, Schauffele 10 under. Zalatoris nine under. Spieth eight under.
Unbelievably, Schauffele came up short at the par-three 16th and finished up in the water and then cleared the green with his third. It was a sad way to end what had been an astonishing comeback. A triple-bogey six saw him tumble back to seven under and although Matsuyama also let a shot go he walked to the 17th hole with a two-shot lead over Zalatoris whose round of 70 saw him end the tournament on 279, nine under par.
When Matsuyama safely parred the 17th it meant that he “only” needed a bogey at the 18th to claim the Green Jacket. His best drive of the day split the fairway. The job was nearly done. But from the perfect position he hit his approach into the bunker guarding the front right of the green. He came out to about six feet and duly two-putted for victory. He walked off the green fighting back the tears.
Spieth bogeyed the final hole for a 70 and a seven-under-par total of 281, tied with Schauffele in third place.
Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre, also playing in his first Masters, finished the week on two under par and secured a top-12 finish that ensures he will be back next year. “I am delighted with that performance,” he said. “I have proved to myself that I can compete with the best guys in the world. I have only ever played this course on computer games with my mates before this week."
He was a shot ahead of Tyrrell Hatton who had a 68 and a one-under par total. “The conditions were easier than we have had all week,” he said. “I am so pleased to finally break 70 here. This golf course doesn’t really fit my eye but I will take confidence from that round."
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