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It’s one of golf’s charming differentiators – the ability for the average Joe to identify with the world-class Pro. You and LeBron James have next to nothing in common. You also don’t have a clue what it’s like to play quarterback in the NFL. But you must have found yourself in a position similar to that of Russell Henley on Sunday: you are playing with the lights off, you are approaching an endless round, when suddenly the finish line appears. An hour later, you wonder what happened.
After sleeping at the top of the Sony Open, seeking his first victory in almost five years and trying to break an 0-for-4 streak of being ahead after 54 holes, Henley made the turn in six under 29 on Sunday to stretch his advantage to five strokes with nine holes to play. His worst nine-hole score of the week had been an under 34. He had 22 birdies and two eagles in 63 holes when, like clockwork, the whole tenor of his round changed. It’s an age-old tradition in golf, moving from free play and positive thinking to the defensive swing and just trying to get it into the house. It’s not that Henley collapsed, per se – he only made one bogey, on 11. But he looked like a man trying to avoid a chokehold, not a man trying to smack the gate. It’s like in football, when a team goes up 1-0 and then reflexively gives up possession to the opponent. Or in football, when a team goes up two scores and starts playing, warn the defense.
As you know by now, Henley lost that five stroke lead, eventually overtaken by the galloping horse known as Hideki Matsuyama. The body language of the two men on the Waialae stretch couldn’t have been more different: There was Henley, restless and nervous; and there was Hideki, assertive and determined. On the final hole in regulation, trailing by one point, Matsuyama pulled out his shoes and ripped a tight 340-yard draw that clipped the corner and left him with a 6-iron in the par-5. Henley, playing next, stoked a 3- from the wood in the right bunker and had to fold. Henley hit that same 3-wood fanned into that same right bunker in the playoffs. Matsuyama then hit the hit of the year – it’s early, but as of now, it’s technically true! in eagle.
Matsuyama now has three wins in his last 18 starts after going nearly four years without one before his victory at Augusta National. Speaking of that victory… it not only gave Japan its first major men’s championship, it forcefully lifted a tremendous weight off Matsuyama’s broad shoulders. Having covered around 40 tour events over the past three years, I’m still amazed at the herd of traveling media documenting his every move. Outside of COVID, there were a good handful of Japanese journalists who followed Matsuyama from tournament to tournament, waiting in interview areas to drill him after a 65 or a 75. He’s a naturally shy person who seems really uncomfortable with all the attention. And while his lack of English – and our lack of Japanese – hinders our ability to truly understand what drives him, a response from his post-win press conference jumped off the page.
He was asked how his life had changed since winning the Masters. The normal response here would be something along the lines of I have more media obligations, I feel like I have better couples, people recognize me more, yadda yadda yadda. Instead: “The pressure of not winning a major is gone.”
From an X and Os perspective, Matsuyama’s putting performance—he led a full event in strokes gained/putting for the first time in his career—earned him the W. But focusing on stats alone ignores the circumstances which produced them. It’s no coincidence that Matsuyama behaved the way he did on Sunday. He is now relieved by the hopes of a golf-mad nation. He is free to play (and putt) with aggression and conviction. Sunday’s back nine is always a cauldron of emotion, and the player who emerges victorious is usually the one in the positive mental space. Matsuyama is stepping into that space with increasing frequency, and that’s why he added his eighth PGA Tour win on Sunday.
—The PGA Tour is moving to the continent for the first time in 2022, which means the start of new and improved PGA Tour Live coverage on ESPN+. Some of the perks for golf fans include four separate streaming channels instead of one and four featured holes for each tournament, meaning you’ll be able to watch every player on the course play at least 22% of their game. There will also be a “main stream” which will closely resemble a traditional broadcast and feature the best action from all of ESPN’s cameras around the course.
—The Big Money Golf Classic promised the biggest payday in minor golf. The tournament took place; money is a different, more complicated story. My colleague Joel Beall said it well after speaking to tournament owner Dustin Manning to find out what went wrong and why players remain unpaid from his event.
—The world of golf lost a legend last Tuesday when journalist Tim Rosaforte succumbed to a battle with aggressive Alzheimer’s disease. He was 66 years old. Rosaforte has spent years at Golf Digest, and my colleagues have paid tribute to one of the best to ever do so.
—Netflix and the PGA Tour have officially announced a documentary show that will tell the story of the 2022 PGA Tour season. Notably, all four majors are on board to provide behind-the-scenes access, and the roster of signed-up players is quite impressive. We could list them all, but it’s probably more efficient to just name the guys who don’t: Tiger, Phil, Rory, Bryson and Rahm. The other big stars are in the game.
—I had the chance to play Los Angeles Country Club last week, which will host the 2023 US Open. The famous (very infamous?) exclusive club remained shrouded in mystery – despite being located on both sides of Wilshire Boulevard – until it opened to the public for the 2017 Walker Cup. It gave some glimpses of his genius, but LACC will blow viewers away when he steps into the primetime spotlight. Surely there is no better downtown course in the country; it’s hard to believe such spectacular topography exists between Century City and Beverly Hills.
—Kevin Na provided an early candidate for Tweet of the Year, if you like that sort of thing. Also, how about this stat? Since 1983, Kevin Na has shot 11 rounds of 62 or better on the PGA Tour. The next highest are Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas, with nine. No one is more comfortable taking it low-down than Na.
—The LPGA Tour returns this week for its first event of the new year, the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions. Like the PGA Tour’s Sentry TOC, the LPGA Opener is a limited field event for tournament winners, only the LPGA lets in winners from the past two seasons. Plus, Michelle Wie West is on the course, eligible for maternity leave after winning in 2018. As the new season begins, Golf Digest writers have compiled a list of things we hope to see on tour in 2022.