AKRON All of the big names were there, but it was an unfamiliar one to many local golf fans who hoisted the Gary Player Trophy at the end of the 2017 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Hideki Matsuyama of Japan closed strong and raced past a star-studded field on the Firestone Country Club South Course, finishing 16 under par to beat out Rory McIroy, Jordan Spieth, Thomas Pieters and others in an even that saw the leaderboard change regularly from Thursday through Sunday.
Despite his strong finish, Matsuyama was still trying to settle in even during the final round, something he expressed through interpreter Bob Turner after the round.
“I was nervous all the way around because I really wasn't sure of my swing today,'' he said.
With the win, Matsuyama set himself up well for the season’s final major, the PGA Championship which is going on this weekend. He did so with a final-round 61, his fourth round under par in four days and seven shots better than runner-up Zach Johnson (-11 overall). The 61 matches the record score for the course, one set by Jose Maria Olazabal, Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia.
It was the sort of dramatic, near-flawless conclusion that was needed to take home the $1.7 million purse for first place and Matsuyama left Johnson, Charley Hoffman (-10) and Pieters (-8) in his wake as he fired a round without a single bogey and highlighted by seven birdies and an eagle on the par-5 second hole. With the eagle on the second and a birdie on the third, Matsuyama sent out a clear signal that he was going to be a force on Sunday.
He chased that strong finish with four birdies on the final six holes, a dominant effort that may have stirred up a few memories of past furious finishes by the man who has won more WGC-Bridgestone titles than anyone, Woods.
“I did play with Tiger four years ago, watched him shoot 61 (in the second round of the 2013 Bridgestone Invitational),” Matsuyama said. “I just couldn’t believe it that anyone could shoot a 61 on this golf course. And then from that point, to work hard and to be able to do it today is a dream come true.”
At the age of 25, Matsuyama already has a long list of wins in his home country as well as seven international wins.
Johnson, whose second place finish still netted him $1.045 million, expressed his enjoyment of the South Course, which typically draws positive reviews from the world’s top players when they pass through Akron each summer.
“It was a great weekend in the sense that I felt good about the week coming in,” Johnson said. “Certainly love this golf course and what it demands, and certainly how I performed in the past here, so I had confidence in that regard. I think if I could have made a few more putts early on today, it maybe could have changed the outcome. Tip your cap to Hideki, he’s obviously a world class, you know, whatever he is, top 2 or 3 player in the world.”
The top of the leaderboard underscored the event’s international flavor, as Japan, the United States, England, Belgium, Northern Ireland, Canada, Scotland, Australia and Denmark were all represented in the top 10. With so many different languages and accents on the course through the four days of the tournament, fans had a chance to enjoy interactions between players grouped together from different areas of the world.
Some of the big names, including Americans Rickie Fowler and Spieth, weren’t able to make the charge they hoped for in the final rounds, but both still drew large galleries during their rounds. Aside from a storm that blew through the area on Saturday and delayed play three times, along with dropping leaves and branches on greens and fairways in its aftermath, it was a bright weekend for a tournament that often draws as many top players as any event outside the tour’s four majors.
The name that ended the weekend on top may have come to Akron as a new one to a lot of those who passed through the gates, Hideki Matsuyama is an unknown no more to those who witnessed his strong closing round.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
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