It is not even February, and already for the second time this season, the PGA Tour is hosting a tournament where a player has the chance to three-peat, something that has not been done since Steve Stricker won his third straight John Deere Classic in the summer of 2011, over six years ago.
The first chance was at the CIMB Classic in mid-October where Justin Thomas finished T17 in the defense of his defense of the Kuala Lumpur-based event.
This week, the spotlight is on 25-year-old Japanese prodigy Hideki Matsuyama, who won the fourth playoff hole against Webb Simpson, one year after winning the event on the fourth playoff hole against Rickie Fowler.
Despite victories in two World Golf Championships last season, Matsuyama called his second win in Arizona his best golf.
“As far as me personally, winning for the second time here in Phoenix, for me personally that would probably be my best golf,” said Matsuyama.
A third win, and he would join Arnold Palmer (1961-63) as the tournament’s only three-time winners.
“Being able to win twice the last two years have been really memorable for me and quite an honor,” said Matsuyama. “I’m going to do my best this year to three-peat and if I was fortunate enough to do that, I think I would join the King, Arnold Palmer, as the only three-peat winner. That would be something.”
Matsuyama’s 2017 triumph at TPC Scottsdale was the second in a breakthrough three-win season. He also notched three runner-ups on the season, including one at the U.S. Open where a late rally to catch Brooks Koepka fell just short. With $8.38 million in 2017 earnings, many are expecting even more strides from Matsuyama in 2018.
His first four starts last season resulted in finishes of 2, 1, 2, T27. Through four starts in the new season, he’s not been quite as productive, but the finishes, aside from one, are still well above average: T5, T50, T5, T12.
Since last year, his approach game is still top-notch, and his putting has actually improved tremendously, but he is not helping himself as much off the tees, where he is currently 88th on Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee, one year after finishing 26th in that same category.
He is coming in with some momentum, though. In his T12 performance at last week’s Farmers Insurance Open, with difficult winds on Sunday, he posted a 3-under 69, which tied Charles Howell III for the low round of the day. This was in spite of all the attention that came with being paired with Tiger Woods, who was playing in his first official tournament in a year.
He was carried on Sunday by his much improved putting, as he finished second in the field in strokes gained on the greens.
“I haven’t really played well this year up until the last day there at Torrey Pines. My short game is getting a lot better and coming to Phoenix it seems like something always good happens, so hopefully I’ll do my best and see where it goes,” said Matsuyama.
Content in this post originally appeared as part of 5 Storylines: Waste Management Phoenix Open.