PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida – It was the biggest round in Players Championship history that never existed.
A wonderful footnote among the countless retrospective stories this week about the PGA Tour’s shutdown in 2020 Hideki Matsuyama’s opening round masterpiece was lost as a COVID-19 storm.
While tour officials grappled with the pandemic and how their flagship tournament would play out, Matsuyama was up early on a perfect Thursday morning alongside Patrick Cantlay and Patrick Reed the Stadium Course on the way. Although technically an « introduced group, » the early hour, coupled with increasing uncertainty, left little time to witness Matsuyama’s magic. Those who were there were treated to a show.
Matsuyama, who started his day in 10th place, started his round with four consecutive birdies and turned 3 under.
The 29 year old was Matsuyama in his final round with birdies on numbers 2, 5, 6 and 7 even better. Matsuyama rolled in what he called « the best putt of the day » for a course record of 63 in a 25-foot eagle.
« I remember thinking he couldn’t do birdies, and then he flew the ninth hole to end the day and shoot 63, « said Cantlay. “I thought I played pretty well and shot 67 and he knocked me out by a couple. I remember he just played a near-perfect round of golf. “
So many things happened in real time. Just as Matsuyama was finishing his round, tour officials announced the unprecedented move of playing Round 2 with no fans and a very limited voluntary footprint.
« It’s going to be strange tomorrow. I think we all have to go back to our college days to play without a gallery, « Matsuyama said at the time.
Despite the construction uncertainty, Matsuyama stuck to his rigorous post-round routine. He went to the area, hit more balls, and then went to the practice putting green.
During the day, golf stood still at The Players
Although the lap was skipped from the circuit’s ShotLink successes, what we know about Matsuyama’s map is impressive. He hit nine of 14 fairways, 15 of 18 greens in regulation and led the field by winning strokes: putting, which is a remarkable achievement for a player who was no better than 78th place in his career in this category.
« It wasn’t easy. I remember the wind picking up late in the lap and it was one of the best laps I’ve ever seen, » said Josh Gregory, Reed’s top coach who was with this Thursday The group went. « That 63 was really good and it didn’t look like he was going to back down. »
Matsuyama has declined numerous interview requests to talk about his opening round last year at TPC Sawgrass, his longtime interpreter, Bob According to Turner, the round isn’t a story.
« It was one of those rounds where everything went right, » Turner recalled. « Probably the best he played last year. It was fun to hit the ball hitting and doing putts en. “
Matsuyamas 65 was the best lap of the day with two strokes, bringing in Fred Couples, Greg Norman, Jason Day and Brooks Koepka for the best lap on the Stadium Course. It also prepared the five-time tour winner for the biggest victory of his career.
While the western world debates the status of the players’ championship as a quasi-major every year, for Matsuyama the event stands next to the real Grand Slam stops. The historically slow starter must have been encouraged by his performance on Thursday.
“We thought it was a good start to an important tournament and thought this could be the week. If he starts well, he usually knows how to finish, ”said Turner. « We were pretty excited until the news came on Thursday night. »
The news wasn’t good for the tour or anyone else. At around 9:30 p.m. the circuit texted the players that the event along with the next three tournaments had been canceled due to the pandemic.
Matsuyama drove to Orlando, Florida the next day and waited a few days before he and his family flew back to Japan to leave the quarantine. After returning to the tour at RBC Heritage in June, he finished the season with just a top 10 finish. « Of course he was disappointed, but he didn’t show it, » said Turner. « When he thinks back, he mentioned it was bittersweet. It was a great round, but it ushered in a whole year of a new normal. »
Coming back to TPC Sawgrass this week caused a lot of mixed feelings. The vast majority remembers where they were and what they were doing when the tour finally pulled the plug, but for Matsuyama there is the added feeling of having started so quickly at an event that means so much to him.He will be paired this week for rounds 1-2 with Harris English and Si Woo Kim, who also finished second after the first round last year.
« If I felt for someone last year because of all of this, it was Hideki, « said Rory McIlroy. » That was obviously a damn good opening round. «
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