Hideki Matsuyama fired a course record-equalling nine-under par 61 on Sunday to win the Bridgestone Invitational by five strokes for a second World Golf Championships win.
The world number three from Japan marched to the title with an eagle and seven birdies. His 16-under total of 264 put him five in front of two-time major winner Zach Johnson, who closed with a 68 for 269.
Matsuyama, the first player from Asia to win one of golf’s elite WGC titles, added the Bridgestone trophy to the HSBC Champions crown he claimed in October.
The dominant performance came in the final tune-up event for golf’s best before the last major of the season, the PGA Championship next week at Quail Hollow in North Carolina.
Matsuyama kick-started his round with an eagle at Firestone Country Club’s par-five second, where he chipped in from just off the green.
He capped his round with birdies at 16, 17 and 18 to join Jose Maria Olazabal, Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia as the only players to shoot 61 on Firestone’s South Course.
“In fact, I played with Tiger four years ago when he shot 61, so I knew 61 was the number today,” Matsuyama said. “I was thinking about that at 16 — I knew if I birdied 16, 17 and 18 I could get there.”
He did — rolling in a six-footer at the last — and will go into the PGA Championship a hot favorite to become the first Japanese man to win a major championship — although he noted that he’s never been particularly successful in the PGA Tour event at Quail Hollow.
“All I can do is my best,” Matsuyama said.
That was certainly good enough on Sunday — although Matsuyama said he had no expectation of such a round after his pre-round practice.
“You wouldn’t have believed how I warmed up this morning,” he said.
“I was not hitting it good on the range. I did hit some good shots, but I was nervous all the way around because I really wasn’t sure of my swing today.”
Nevertheless, his eagle and three birdies saw him leading when he made the turn.
American Charley Hoffman applied some pressure with five birdies his first 11 holes, but couldn’t maintain his consistency in a 66 that saw him settle for third place on 270.
Johnson, who shared the overnight lead with Belgian Thomas Pieters, had three birdies and a bogey in his two-under effort — but parred his way through the last seven holes as Matsuyama consolidated his lead.
Johnson, seeking his first win since the 2015 British Open, was encouraged by his game but said of Matsuyama: “Clearly, we all ran into a buzz saw today.”
Pieters’s one-over 71 was good enough for fourth place on 272.
Northern Ireland star Rory McIlroy carded a 60 to head a group on 273 that also included Scotland’s Russel Knox (68), England’s Paul Casey (67) and Canadian Adam Hadwin (69).
British Open champion Jordan Spieth, who will be pursuing a career Grand Slam at the PGA Championship, closed with a 68 that left him in a group sharing 13th on 276.
“My game improved each and every day, even though my score didn’t reflect it today so I’m really excited going into Quail Hollow,” Spieth said.
World number four Rory McIlroy has revealed he split from JP Fitzgerald because he was increasingly taking out his frustrations on his caddie of 10 years.
The pair worked together during all four of McIlroy’s major championship victories, but the last of those was in 2014 and McIlroy has endured a winless, injury-plagued season in 2017.
“It’s a big change,” McIlroy told a pre-tournament press conference ahead of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, where he won three years ago.
“JP has been a huge part of my life for the last decade.
“We started in July 2008 and went all the way to July this year, a lot of great times on and off the golf course. I still consider JP one of my best friends but sometimes to preserve a personal relationship you might have to sacrifice a professional one and that was sort of the decision I came to in the end.
“I was getting very hard on him on the golf course and I didn’t want to treat him like that.
“It was a really tough decision to make but I thought, ‘I’m coming to Firestone, I have four tournament rounds to get to know someone or get used to having someone else on my bag going into the last major of the year’.
“I thank JP for everything. He knows how much I think of him, what we’ve achieved together but at the end of the day it was a change I needed to make because I got to the point where if I didn’t play a good shot or made a wrong decision I was getting more frustrated at him than I was at myself.
“I’d much rather be angry at myself for making a wrong decision than being angry at him.”
Harry Diamond, the best man at McIlroy’s wedding and a former top amateur player in his own right, will caddy for McIlroy at Firestone and in next week’s US PGA at Quail Hollow.
It remains to be seen whether that arrangement will become permanent, but McIlroy did not rule out working with Fitzgerald again in the future.
“I hate the term fired, or sacked or axed because that’s definitely not what it was,” the Northern Irishman added. “I just changed my path a little bit but maybe in the future that path might come back to where it was.”
Eventually, it was just a round of one-under par 69 – far higher than the Sunday 63 shot by Henrik Stenson in his epic battle with Phil Mickelson to win in 2016 – but Jordan Spieth’s effort to win the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale will surely be remembered with as much awe.
While Stenson at Troon was sustained brilliance, Spieth’s will forever be known for incredible mental resilience and fortitude, and how hope can be resuscitated even in the direst of situations.
The 23-year-old American was not only fighting a faltering swing, he was also up against the demons that have haunted him since the 12th hole meltdown at the Masters a year ago. And for someone who is known to be an emotional and empathetic person – which was clearly evident in his acceptance speech as he spoke about the vanquished Matt Kuchar – it must have been tough to find himself leaving a trail of blood and injured fans.
In the first 13 holes on Sunday, Spieth’s waywardness caused him to shout fore on almost every other shot, and there were at least four holes when he smashed his ball into the spectators en route to losing his three-shot lead. Even that horrible cut drive on the 13th hole is said to have hit a fan before flying off into the unplayable lie on the mound.
At that point, it looked like the 13th of Royal Birkdale would become the 12th of Augusta National for him. Clearly, Spieth needed to do a couple of things urgently if he was to keep his hopes of winning a third major title alive – make a smart decision to extricate himself out of the mess on that particular hole, and then somehow find his game back and catch up with Kuchar over the remaining five holes.
There were couple of options available for him on that mound. Play the ball as it lies without incurring a penalty, or declare it unplayable. Once he took the right decision of not trying to hack it out of the tangly grass, he was faced with another decision – he could have gone back to the tee and played his third shot; he could have taken a two-club relief and dropped it back into the thick stuff, or he could have gone as far back, keeping the green and the spot where his tee shot landed in line.
It took him 20 minutes to play his third shot from the adjoining driving range – a move that looked ridiculous at the time, but somehow turned sublime by Spieth’s self-belief and ability.
Miraculously, he conjured up a bogey, thus falling behind Kuchar by just one shot. In hindsight, it was the bogey that won him the tournament.
Jolted out of mediocrity, it was a completely different Spieth from there on – one who just could not miss a shot. What started with a spectacular tee shot on the par-3 14th, which he almost holed out from 201 yards, then raced ahead of Kuchar with a 48-feet long eagle putt on the 15th, and never took his foot off the gas as he made two further birdies over the next two holes. Five-under par for his last four holes, his golf was so brilliant that it seemed a travesty of justice his long putt on the last did not drop for a final grandstand birdie.
What an incredible way to comeback and win. Many congrats @JordanSpieth— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) July 23, 2017
The win should do a few things for Spieth. First and foremost, it should end all talks about the purported frailty of his mind. Events at Birkdale suggest 2016 Masters was merely an aberration in what is definitely going to be one of the greatest careers in the sport.
Secondly, even though the victory elevates him to No2 in the world rankings behind Dustin Johnson, it should leave no doubts as to who is the leading player in the Big Three, or Big Four, or whatever the elite group is called these days. Since the beginning of 2014, Spieth has three major wins (the most in the world), and four other top-5s (also more than any other player in the world).
It just adds to all the fun and excitement that we will have at Quail Hollow, when the PGA Championship is held there in three week’s time. Spieth will be aiming to complete his career grand slam, and given the remarkable form he has been displaying, smart money would be on him to become only the sixth player in post-Masters era to achieve that.