AKRON, Ohio — Hideki Matsuyama is never sure when his best golf is going to show up.
When it does, he can pile up victories with the best of them.
One of the bigger surprises came at just the right time for Matsuyama. While he was only two shots out of the lead going into the final round of the Bridgestone Invitational, he lost his swing on his way to the practice range.
“Probably the worst warmup at a tournament that I’ve won,” he said.
More than just the win was the manner in which the 25-year-old from Japan captured his second World Golf Championship.
He chipped in from 60 feet for eagle on the second hole to get in the game. He took the lead with a 15-foot birdie putt on the sixth hole, and he kept right on going. Already in control, he remembered the course record at Firestone was 61 because he was playing with Tiger Woods in 2013 when Woods did it. Matsuyama closed with three straight birdies for a 9-under 61 to win by five shots.
He went from wondering where the ball was going to knowing where to find it _ at the bottom of the cup.
“When you’re making birdies,” he said, “get relaxed real quick.”
And now the pressure returns.
Matsuyama heads to Quail Hollow Club in North Carolina for the PGA Championship, the final major of the year and his last chance to cap off a year in which the Japanese star moved into the elite in golf.
Japan is clamouring for its first major champion, and he knows it.
“All I can do is my best,” Matsuyama said. “I know a lot of us have tried from Japan to win majors. Hopefully, some day it will happen.”
The timing has never been for him.
When he was 21 and still finishing up his college degree in Japan, Matsuyama had a five-week stretch in which he won twice and was runner-up twice on the Japan Golf Tour in 2013, the year he became the first rookie to win the Order of Merit.
What really turned heads was last fall. Starting with a pressure-filled victory before the home crowd in the Japan Open, Matsuyama had a six-tournament stretch in which he won four times and was runner-up in the other two events. Among those victories was the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, which he won by seven shots for his first World Golf Championship.
Sustaining great golf is difficult for anyone.
Rory McIlroy hasn’t won since the Tour Championship last year. Jordan Spieth missed three cuts in four starts earlier this year and now goes for the career Grand Slam at Quail Hollow this week.
“It’s tough to be able to putt well and hit good golf shots all at the same time,” Matsuyama said. “Even after that good run, I hoped I could continue on, but it didn’t happen and I was hoping to do better. But I think this week especially, the mental aspect of the game played a big part in my victory. I was able to control my emotions. I felt calm, peaceful, didn’t try to get too high or too low. And I think that was one of the major reasons why I was successful.”
It certainly got the attention of McIlroy, who never could catch up to Matsuyama in Shanghai last fall.
“Once he gets going, he just keeps the hammer down and keeps it going,” McIlroy said. “It’s very impressive. He’s played very impressively over the past 18 months with a lot of wins and a lot of good finishes. That’s the calibre of player he is. I expect him to be right up there next week, as well.”
Along with capturing another World Golf Championship title, Matsuyama won for the third time this season, joining Spieth and Dustin Johnson for the most on the PGA Tour. He also took over the lead in the FedEx Cup with the start of the playoffs just three weeks away.
He had not won since the Phoenix Open, and while the pressure is building in the majors, Matsuyama has had one of his best years. He tied for 11th in the Masters, was runner-up by four shots to Brooks Koepka in the U.S. Open and tied for 14th in the British Open.
It only appeared he was struggling because the expectations keep rising.
“I hope their expectations aren’t too high,” Matsuyama said. “But my expectations really at the beginning of this week weren’t that high, either, and here we are.”
Matsuyama stays at No. 3 in the world, a fraction behind Spieth, but only because Spieth had created a large gap from his British Open victory. Matsuyama had a chance to get to No. 1 in the world, but he missed his only cut of the year in Los Angeles, and that was right about the time Dustin Johnson got on a roll.
He has reached as high as No. 2 this year, though he doesn’t look at himself as being in the category of Spieth, Johnson, McIlroy or even Jason Day.
“I haven’t won a major yet. I have a lot of work left to do,” Matsuyama said. “But that’s not to say that I don’t have confidence.”