Hideki Matsuyama sets course record at Medinah
MEDINAH, IL – Normally, Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama uses a translator when he answers questions in English. But there was one question after his second round Friday at the BMW Championship that required no help.
Was this the best round of your season?
“Yeah,” Matsuyama said succinctly and with a smile.
Indeed, the bogey-free 9-under 63 was his lowest score of the season, and it also ties for the second-lowest round of his PGA TOUR career. Oh, and it’s also the lowest score ever shot in competition at Medinah No. 3, a course that’s been around since 1923. The previous course record was 65, set by Tiger Woods and Mike Weir at the 2006 PGA Championship and tied Thursday by first-round co-leaders Justin Thomas and Jason Kokrak.
Consequently, Matsuyama, at 12 under, moved to the top of the leaderboard midway through the second round.
Fueling his play Friday was a club that hasn’t always been friendly to Matsuyama: His putter.
Entering this week, he ranked 114th in Strokes Gained: Putting and in his previous five seasons on TOUR, he’s never ranked better than 78th. Compare that to his Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green rankings – seventh this season, and inside the top 10 in four of the previous five seasons.
But when Matsuyama converted his first birdie putt from 28-1/2 feet on the opening hole, it was a foreshadowing of a special round on the greens. He made a birdie putt from just outside 10 feet on the fourth, then saved par from a similar distance at the sixth. Then a birdie from 16 feet at the eighth hole. Then more long birdie putts after the turn: a 17-footer at the 12th hole, a 23-1/2 footer at the 17th and fittingly enough, a 30-footer on the closing hole.
In all, he made 165 feet, 8 inches of putts, and his five successful putts from outside 15 feet are a career high. So is his Strokes Gained: Putting number on Friday: 5.4. His average coming in this week was minus 0.053.
So what gives?
“I wish I knew why I putted so well today,” Matsuyama said through his translator. “But I was happy that a lot of them went in. As they went in, you start gaining more confidence and as your confidence builds, more putts go in, too.”
Matsuyama said he had not been working on anything specific with his putter. “But I have seen and received a lot of advice,” he added. “Good advice from some real good putting professionals. Starting to get that feeling back that I had three years ago when I putted well and I’m happy about that.”
Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo has followed Matsuyama’s career for several years, going back to his amateur days when Hideki was winning consecutive Asia Pacific Amateur titles. He knows that Matsuyama runs hot and cold with the putter.
But he thinks Matsuyama might be more consistent on the greens moving forward.
“He had that dramatic pause in his backswing. It was also in his putting stroke,” Nobilo said Friday. “So the putting stroke was the first thing he tried to take the pause out of. He’s worked very hard to not spend as much time centered over the ball when he’s about to putt. So it’s a little bit more rhythmical.
“That’s a fundamental change when you take the pause out of your swing because it affects your timing. But he’s stuck with it.”
Matsuyama has made 55 starts since his last win at the 2017 World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational (now the FedEx St. Jude Invitational). He was ranked third in the world after that week and then moved up to second after his next start, the PGA Championship, when he tied for fifth.
Since then, he’s fallen down the rankings, and his current ranking of 32nd is his lowest since the summer of 2013.
Now he goes into the weekend at Medinah with a great opportunity to end his drought and move inside the top 30 who will advance to next week’s TOUR Championship (he started the week ranked 33rd in FedExCup points). Setting the course record at Medinah is a huge boost of confidence.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in contention,” Matsuyama said. “Hopefully I can play well. I’ve been struggling for awhile this year. Hopefully that can turn around and I’ll have a good weekend.”
If Matsuyama can regain the form of a top-five player, it would certainly put a huge smile on Ernie Els’ face. The captain of the International Team could use a red-hot Matsuyama this December at the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne.
Two years ago at Liberty National, Matsuyama admittedly was in poor form – he had broken his driver just weeks earlier and struggled with the replacement -- and won just one of his four matches in the U.S. rout. Nobilo, a former International Team player and assistant captain, said the Internationals need Matsuyama and their other big-name players in peak form to take pressure off the back end of the lineup that usually is not as deep as the American side.
“A good Hideki is as good as anyone in the world,” Nobilo said. “For the International side, this is probably some of the best news they’ve had for ages.”