It was almost too perfect. Hideki Matsuyama, hours before taking the start in his home country knowing that all eyes would be on him, completely underestimating the state of his game, claiming he was currently 1 in 10. Sure, by then we should all have known what was to come in the opening round of the Zozo championship.
The man known for his one-handed follow-ups on shots that land 20 feet from the Cup did it again – he made us all think his game was bad when in reality he was closer to the usual perfection which he demands of himself. The Masters winner started the week in Japan with a six-under-64, the only real flaw coming in a par of three putts in the 18th par-5 at Narashino Country Club.
Matsuyama’s 64 weren’t enough to take the lead despite the particularly difficult course, at least compared to the last two weeks of the PGA Tour. There were a lot more bogeys and “others” on Thursday, and then we saw in the two Vegas events combined, a product of both Narashino’s defenses – a handful of tough long par 4s and fast sloping greens like l flash – make a serious defense Thursday.
And yet, Matsuyama still managed to stand out, as did his compatriot Hiroshi Iwata, whose under-63s earned him the title of leader in solo. Two years after Tiger Woods’ record-breaking 82nd victory at Narashino, two Japanese players are at the top of the table, which could be the one thing that would bring fans in Japan as much or more joy than Woods lifting the trophy.
Rickie Fowler shines in the TV booth
It wasn’t a long stay, but in the short time Rickie Fowler spent in the Golf Channel booth on Thursday, he made a good impression.
George Savaricas, who calls for action this week, teased Fowler’s appearance on Twitter earlier today, and Fowler showed up as expected after his first round. After finishing T-3 in the CJ Cup, he continued to ride the last nine at Narashino (his forward), with birdies at 11, 14 and 18. Unfortunately, all three were canceled by a disastrous triple bogey. at 17, and his peer par 34 on the home nine gave him a peer par 70.
Soon after, Fowler slipped into the analyst chair alongside Savaricas, and he did a great job. After evaluating his course, they jumped into action at the 17th hole – “getting back to where my hiccups were today,” Fowler said, mocking himself. “This drive would have saved me a few shots,” he added, referring to Hideki Matsuayama’s drive who found the center of the fairway.
Soon Fowler was breaking down the shots and their potential results Tony Romo’s way. “The suspension is stretched out here for Alex,” Fowler said as he saw the ball under ScHotele’s feet on the 17th fairway. “He’s going to have to stay on the ground during all of this or else he’s going to vent it properly, although if he does, he’s got a little wind that might push him back.” ScHotele took the shot, which Fowler said “looked heavy”. Wouldn’t you know, it did, and it flared up to the right. Rickie Romo.
Fowler’s fleeting performance was essentially what the golf fan looks for when watching a round of golf – a knowledgeable voice describing exactly what the player is facing on a particular stroke and the rewards or potential consequences of that stroke. It’s amazing how simple it really is. Hopefully those “player takeovers” teased by Savaricas become the new normal.
Joaquin Niemann is already back for more
In an alternate universe, Joaquin Niemann won three times a season ago. In this universe, however, he’s been second on three occasions, two of which ended in playoff losses and the third in a one-stroke loss in regulation. Dump stuff, to put it lightly.
Well, gutting for some. Not so much for Niemann, a 22-year-old who apparently has little interest in letting a few close calls linger. He may already be back this week in Japan, where he opened his Zozo Championship with a 64 without a bogey, putting him in the lead. The day started with a literal little slip, from which Niemann of course had no problem recovering.
“I think from the first hole I slid off the first tee a bit on my right foot and hit a terrible blow,” Niemann said after the round. “Yes, I think what to do [par] there was huge, gave me more confidence knowing I could have a good day. And after that I started playing well, hitting the fairways, hitting good shots on the green, making good putts, which is always nice. Obviously we had a great day, we had a lot of fun. It was a fun ride. “
If past history is any indication, there is a lot more fun to be had for Niemann this week. Six times in his career, he shot 65 or less in the first round, and his final six results in those events were T-6, T-5, 1st, T-12, T-2 and T-2. When it starts out hot, it usually stays hot.
Pair of Brits crouching at the top
In the weeks when the peloton is judged “weak” before someone shoots, the hope is that the few stars on site will function within their capabilities and create a pleasantly surprising weekend of entertainment. We’re on this path thanks to Matsuyama and Niemann, in addition to a pair of Brits – Matt Wallace and Tommy Fleetwood.
Wallace, always a fiery character, posted a 65 in the first round, highlighted by a stellar forward nine 30, which was his back nine. He’s only two down on the heels of a T-14 finish at the Shriners and a solid touring season a year ago that included two top-six finishes. Fleetwood, meanwhile, opened with a 67-under-three, a round that included two Eagles. With Matsuyama and Niemann the only 30 best players in the world ahead of them, you have to understand that these two Englishmen can stay in this fight until Sunday.