The ZOZO Championship witnessed the marriage of extremely popular and extremely talented, as Japan native Hideki Matsuyama used two Sunday eagles to win the Japan-hosted event by five strokes.
The win comes six months after the 29-year-old made history by becoming the first Japanese golfer to win The Masters, an accomplishment that made him a recipient of the rare “Prime Minister’s Award,” an award first granted in 1977 to Sadaharu Oh, a baseball player who owns the world lifetime home run record with 868 (106 more than all-time MLB leader Barry Bonds).
Matsuyama, who won eight times on the Japan Tour, represented the host country at The Olympic Games in Tokyo in July, barely missing a putt that would have won the gold medal. Unfortunately, fans were banned from The Olympics due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they were back in full force at Narashino Country Club, and they were overwhelmingly behind their best all-time golfer, as he won his seventh PGA Tour event.
This was the second time the ZOZO has been held in Japan since the PGA Tour made their return to the country in over 50 years, when the 2019 edition was won by Tiger Woods, who also won The Masters that year. Matsuyama finished solo-second in that 2019 event. The 2020 edition was moved to California due to the pandemic.
Scoring was difficult at Narashino this week, with just three players finishing double-digits under par: Matsuyama, who finished 15-under-par, and the duo of Brendan Steele and Cameron Tringale, who finished tied for second at 10-under.
Matsuyama, who was the third-highest ranked player in the field (19th in the OWGR), began the final round at 10 under and just one stroke advantage over Tringale, a 13-year Tour vet still looking for his first career victory. No other player was within eight strokes of Matsuyama.
Hideki and Tringale both parred each of the first five holes, but both took advantage of the par-5 sixth: Tringale with a birdie and Matsuyama with an eagle to take a two-stroke lead. However, Matsuyama would go on to bogey No. 8, while Tringale birdied nine to get within one at the turn. Tringale then birdied 10 to tie the lead with eight holes to play.
That was as close as Tringale would get. While he sputtered with six straight pars, Matsuyama birdied Nos. 11, 13, and 15, to lead by two with two holes to play. Both players bogeyed the par-4 17th. Then, on the par-5 18th, Matsuyama hit what he later referred to as his tournament-clinching shot, a second-shot 3-wood to 12 feet. He sunk the eagle putt, while Tringale, needing to take some risks on 18, again carded bogey, meaning a five-shot victory for the local favorite.
Hideki shot a 5-under 65 in the final round, which tied for the third-lowest score in the Sunday field.
Surprisingly, winning the green jacket, which snapped a four-year winless drought, failed to raise Matsuyama to another level with his game. In ten 2021 season starts after The Masters, he managed just one top-10 finish. He started his 2022 campaign with a T6 at September’s Fortinet Championship, but in two starts over the past two weeks, he posted disappointing finishes of T67 and T59 respectively.
After Tringale and Steele, the next closest players to Matsuyama were the international trio of Canadian Mackenzie Hughes, Englishman Matt Wallace, and Sebastian Munoz of Colombia, who finished nine strokes back at 6-under par.
ZOZO Championship: Top 10
Pos-Player-To Par (Final Rd)
1. Hideki Matsuyama -15 (-5)
2. Brendan Steele -10 (-4)
2. Cameron Tringale -10 (-1)
4. Mackenzie Hughes -6 (-3)
4. Matt Wallace -6 (E)
4. Sebastian Munoz -6 (E)
7. Keegan Bradley -5 (-5)
7. Lanto Griffin -5 (-4)
7. Takumi Kanaya -5 (-4)
7. Luke List -5 (-3)
7. Sam Ryder -5 (-3)
7. Collin Morikawa -5 (-1)
7. Tommy Fleetwood -5 (E)
7. Branden Grace -5 (E)
How Hideki Matsuyama Won The ZOZO Championship
An opening 6-under 64 had Matsuyama one back of fellow countryman Hiroshi Iwata after one round. A second-round 68 then put Matsuyama ahead for good. He followed with another 68 on Saturday before clinching the title with his Sunday 65. Only he and Tringale posted four rounds in the 60s.
As he has been prone to do in his career, Matsuyama had been struggling with his putter recently, but he played the flat stick much better at Narashino, making him difficult to beat when he has his usual tee-to-green game going. His 16 birdies for the week ranked 7th in the field, and he tied for the field lead in eagles (2) and bogeys (5). He had nothing worse than bogey in any of his four rounds.
Matsuyama’s Winning Numbers
Fairways: 59.6% (31/52) (T18)
Greens: 81.9% (59/72) (1st)
Putts/GIR: 1.780 (T31)
Eagles: 2 (T1)
Birdies: 16 (T7)
What It Means For Matsuyama
Matsuyama was already confident playing in front of his home fans, but he will be hoping his momentum will still be there when the PGA Tour starts hosting more notable events in January. His two top-10s in four starts in the current season is already just one fewer than he had in 27 starts last season.
While he did just have three top-10s in 2021, all three were results of T2 or better, including the win at Augusta. He missed only four cuts the entire season.
With the win at Narashino, Hideki’s world ranking rose from 19th to 12th, and his FedExCup standing rose from 33rd to tied for second with Sungjae Im. He finished last season 26th.
Matsuyama’s 2022 Season
Cuts Made: 4
Wins: 1 (ZOZO Championship)
Additional Top 10: 1
Earnings: $2,045,423 (1st)
FedExCup Pts: 594 (2nd)
World Rank Before/After: 19/12
Just two players in the field were better on Sunday than Matsuyama, with the best of those being the 7-under 63 posted by another Japanese golfer in Naoto Nakanishi.
Ranked 479th in the OWGR, Nakanishi was nearly flawless in round 4, and his field-low round moved him 31 spots up the final leaderboard from T59 to T28. He was 7-under after 54 holes, but was able to finish even-par.
The other round better than Hideki’s 65 was that of Sweden’s Henrik Norlander. Starting on the back-nine Norlander played his first nine holes in 7-under, with birdies on 14, 15, 16, and 17, before an eagle on 18. He played his front nine in 1-over, but his 6-under 64 was still the low round of the day.
Norlander moved up a field-high 34 spots on the final leaderboard from T52 to T18.
Most notable among the three players who tied Matsuyama’s 65 was former PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley. With seven birdies on Sunday, Bradley played the weekend 6-under-par, and that final-round 65 jumped him 17 positions from T17 to T7.
The other two players to shoot 65 were American Maverick McNealy, who finished T25, and little-known Japanese golfer Jinichiro Kozuma, who finished T35.
A 1-under 69 does not stand out as special, even with the difficult scoring for the week, but it was good enough to keep reigning Open Championship winner Collin Morikawa in the top 10, as he finished 5-under for the week, good for a tie for seventh.
More notably for the 24-year-old wunderkind, Morikawa rose from third to a career-high second in the world rankings. He now trails only Spain’s Jon Rahm.
Morikawa and No. 5 Xander Schauffele, the gold medal winner at The Olympics in Tokyo two months ago, who finished T25 this week.
While Norlander was one of Sunday’s biggest winners, on the other side of that coin was the other Swedish golfer in the field, Alex Noren. The 38-year-old Noren actually finished tied with Norlander for the week at T18, but that was not expected after Noren led his fellow countryman by seven strokes going into the final round.
A double-bogey on 16 doomed Noren to a 1-over 71 that dropped him from T9 to T18.
Chilean prodigy Joaquin Niemann was one of the higher-ranked players in the field this week, at No. 30 in the OWGR. The 22-year-old matched Matsuyama’s opening-round 64 to contend early, but fell out of the leader mix with a Friday 71 and a Saturday 73. He looked more like his Saturday self than his Thursday self on Sunday, shooting a 2-over 72 that dropped him 15 spots from T13 to T28.
Niemann was actually 3-under on his front nine, but disaster hit on the back as he followed a bogey on 11 with another on 13, a double-bogey 7 on the par-5 14th, and then another bogey on 15. American fans were largely pleased to see five-time Tour winner Rickie Fowler contend at last week’s CJ Cup @ Sherwood, where he held the 54-hole lead before finishing T3, his best Tour finish in more than two years.
However, his best form did not follow him from California to Japan as a 1-over 71 on Sunday was his third straight after an even-par 70 to open the week. With no under-par rounds, Fowler finished the week at 3-over, which meant a disappointing T44.
Home Soil Victory
“It was one of my biggest goals to win in front of the Japanese fans here in this country as well. So happy I was able to accomplish that. Also, in 2019, Tiger won The Masters and went on to win the ZOZO Championship, so I’m glad that I was able to emulate that as well.”
– Hideki Matsuyama ZOZO Championship winner