Now onto a full week of Masters Contenders and the spotlight is now on Hideki Matsuyama who has to be considered a leading candidate in the group of “best players without a major”.
Matsuyama has been in the mix in major championships in the past, placing T6 or better in each of the four already and that will be vital going forward.
A five-time PGA Tour winner, which includes two WGC titles it certainly looks like a matter of when, not if he will win a major and Augusta presents as good a chance as any for the Japanese superstar.
Ever since finishing T27 on debut as an amateur, Matsuyama has looked capable of playing this course, but it is his performances over the last three seasons that really suggest he could be next in line for the Green Jacket.
He has now finished inside the top-11 in each of his last three starts, which is absolutely superb for someone who is still just 26 years of age. Of course the likes of Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods both won their first Masters titles when they were 21, but this event quite often goes the way of wily veterans due the amount of experience this test generally demands.
Given his three most recent efforts at Augusta, barring any injury problems you would certainly expect Matsuyama to feature on the leaderboard in a couple of weeks time.
Why he can win the 2018 Masters
Matusyama has the right game and mentality to win every time he tees it up, so it is no surprise that in recent years he has played well here and he will now be looking for the next gear to take him from “going close” to really being in contention in the final round here.
He shot 11-under-par when finishing 5th here (his best effort) in 2015. Scoring was particularly low that year, as Spieth went on to finish on 18-under-par but Matsuyama is clearly capable of adapting to scoring conditions, playing the course as it presents itself on the week. The fact that he came back a year later and played well (T7) when the scoring was a lot tougher is clear evidence of that. The winning score in 2016 was just 5-under-par as Danny Willet took the spoils, and just 9-under-par when Sergio Garcia won last year, so his 11-under-par score in 2015 was impressive, even if it was an easier course that week.
Going as close as T2 at last year’s U.S. Open will have given another level of experience in these championships and although he was four shots adrift of Brooks Koepka, he did have to bounce back from an opening-round 74 to even get himself in the mix, showing real character.
There is no stage too big or too difficult it seems for Matsuyama and if he feels comfortable with a layout, as he has proven he does here, he has to be considered a serious contender.
Earlier in his career there were question marks over his putting and for good reason, but he has made improvements in that department, making him a more consistent player and winner. He is still a streaky putter as opposed to being consistent with the short stick, but he is capable of going on a run. Augusta greens are enough to frighten anyone, especially newcomers so there is no shame in taking a little while to adapt to this course, and in particular the putting surfaces.
He currently ranks 69th in SG: Putting this season, which is by no means brilliant but given his last four season-ending ranks in this department read; 173rd, 103rd, 86th and 156th, he is clearly on the right track.
If he gets hot with the putter, with another year of experience of the Augusta greens under his belt he will surely feature quite heavily over the four days.
A model of consistency so far at this event, Matsuyama now needs to show why he is ready to make this his first major win and there is absolutely no reason to believe that won’t be the case this year.
In his first two starts this season he finished 4th and 12th at the Tournament of Champions and Farmers Insurance Open before withdrawing from Phoenix, where he would have been defending due to a wrist injury.
Matsuyama made his come back at Bay Hill last week, finishing just T49 but looked good in glimpses. Yesterday he took care of countryman, Yusaku Miyazato in his first group game, shooting 7-under-par, the lowest of the day so he has clearly put the injury behind him and found form again.
With three PGA Tour wins and two more Japan Tour victories under his belt since October 2016, as well as finishing T14 or better (including two top-5’s) in the majors in 2017, it certainly feels like Matsuyama is due his spot in the major winning circle.
No one would begrudge a player of Matsuyama’s talents a Masters win and it would be good for Asian golf to add another major winner to their ranks, after Y.E. Yang became the first and so far only Asian-born major winner. Yang famously came out on top against Tiger Woods whilst playing alongside him in the final round of the 2009 US PGA. This was the first time Woods gave up a 54-hole lead at a major championship and for Yang to take advantage whilst playing with him is quite brilliant.
There is now doubting that Matusyama is the most talented player to come out of Asia and he will look to further vindicate that sentiment by joining Yang in the major winning ranks