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To hear PGA Tour veteran Pat Perez tell it, Hideki Matsuyama is beloved like a rock star at home in Japan.
“I played behind Hideki [on Friday], and it’s like seeing Elvis,” Perez said.
In bright sunshine, Matsuyama gave his adoring fans an unforgettable performance, making three birdies and an eagle on the back nine to overtake Cameron Tringale and win the PGA Tour’s Zozo Championship by five strokes in his homeland, about 30 minutes northeast of Tokyo.
Matsuyama, who has won eight times on the Japan Golf Tour, shot 5-under 65 at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club in Chiba, Japan, to notch his seventh PGA Tour title and win at home for the first time since the 2016 Mitsui Sumitomo Visa Taiheiyo Masters.
“It was one of my biggest goals to win in front of the Japanese fans here in this country,” he said. “So, happy that I’ll be able to accomplish that.”
Limited crowds of 5,000 fans were permitted at the course each day due to the global pandemic, and Matsuyama had an entire country living and dying with his every swing.
“I told him I don’t know how you deal with the cameras all of the time. He said, ‘I pull my hair out sometimes,’ ” said Perez, who joined the Golf Channel’s broadcast after his third round. “He’s had it for so many years now. It’s second nature to him. I can’t believe being the guy he is in the country right now. Everybody wants him to win. And here he is leading. And the pressure … it doesn’t look like it phases him at all.”
Matsuyama’s popularity has soared to new heights since he became the first male Japanese golfer to win one of the four majors, capturing the Masters on April 11 by one stroke over Will Zalatoris.
At the Zozo Championship, Matsuyama opened with a bogey-free 64, grabbed the lead in the second round with a 68 and maintained a one-stroke advantage with another 68 on Saturday.
Wearing a yellow shirt, his favorite color, on Sunday just as he did en route to winning the Masters, Matsuyama’s lead doubled with an eagle at the sixth hole. But a three-putt bogey at the eighth hole combined with Tringale making birdies at Nos. 8 and 9 to reach 12 under meant Matsuyama had gone from the hunted to the hunter.
Tringale was searching for his first victory in his 314th PGA Tour start, just nine fewer than Rickie Barnes, who has made the most starts (323) without a victory. Tringale already owns the dubious distinction of being the all-time money leader without a victory. The 34-year-old entered the week with earnings of $14,522,401, 141st all time and a spot ahead of former World No. 1 and 20-time Tour winner Greg Norman, and crossed the $15-million mark by cashing a check for $875,600.
“Winning that first one is the hardest,” said four-time Tour winner Ryan Palmer.
Just when it seemed as if it might finally be Tringale’s day to hoist a trophy, he failed to make another birdie and Matsuyama answered at the 11th with a 40-foot left-to-right bending downhill birdie putt and pumped his fist.
Two holes later, he wedged to 10 feet and sank the putt to regain the lead. He tacked on another birdie at 15 to build a two-stroke advantage. Both Matsuyama and Tringale (69), who settled for a tie for second with Brendan Steele (66), bogeyed the difficult 17th hole maintaining Matsuyama’s cushion and he closed in style, ripping a fairway wood at the par 5 to within 10 feet and making an eagle at the last to finish at 15-under 265.
“He didn’t finish well yesterday and so to really slam the door and hit an incredible second shot and hole the putt, it was storybook,” Tringale said. “It was cool.”
Matsuyama hasn’t shot worse than 68 in eight competitive rounds at the Zozo Championship. He finished second to Tiger Woods, who tied Sam Snead with his 82nd Tour title, in the tournament’s debut in 2019.
“I tried hard to prevent him from achieving the historical win, especially in the last six holes,” Matsuyama said this week. “I was just not good enough at that time but I learned course management from him.”
Nor was it lost on Matsuyama that Woods won the Zozo the same year that he won the Masters for his 15th major. Matching that feat seemed like a long shot to Matsuyama, who entered the week with low expectations.
“If my game scored 10 out of 10 at the Masters, now I would say it scores less than 1,” he said on the eve of the tournament. “I will be struggling this week but I am here in Japan so I am motivated to be in contention.”
He did a whole lot better than that – he rated his performance this week an 8 out of 10 – and his putter, the Achilles’ Heel of his game at times, on Sunday rated at least an 11. Matsuyama ranked No. 174 in Strokes Gained: Putting (-0.433) last season and through 12 measured rounds of the new campaign was even worse, ranking 227th (-1.099). Somehow, he made putt after putt when he needed to coming home using his backup Scotty Cameron GSS Newport 2 Timeless because something was lost in translation when his gamer was being repaired, he said. How else did he explain going from playing like a 1 to tournament champion? He credited it to feeding off the positive vibes from his loyal supporters as if they willed him to victory.
“It’s just great to be able to play in front of so many fans here in Japan and to be able to play well,” he said. “I’m thrilled.”