Oct 28th, 2016
Hideki Matsuyama tops the leaderboard
On day two of the WGC Champions
Words: John Dean Photography: HSBC / Getty Images
YE Yang may have won a major but, to date, no Asian player has won a Word Golf Championship. Yet all that could change this week as Japan’s 24-year-old Hideki Matsuyama goes into the halfway stage of the WGC-HSBC Champions at Sheshan with a three-shot lead over Bill Haas and Russell Knox, the defending champion.
Matsuyama was well-enough placed at eight under par for the tournament after the first nine holes of his second round but, all of a sudden, he soared clear of the rest with an inward 31 to set a 65 alongside his opening 66. In all, he has made 19 birdies in two days.
When he was on the range this morning, Matsuyama, who is 13-under-par for his two rounds, studied the rising wind and thought to himself that a two-under 70 would be no bad score for the day. “I knew it was going to be tough and it really was,” he said. “It was cold as well and the ball was hard to control. Luckily, I’ve been playing well recently and my second shots are going where I want them to.”
He has indeed been playing well recently. He won this year’s Japanese Open championship, while he had a second place last week and has now moved into the world’s top ten. Danny Willett is ahead of him at No 9, with Rickie Fowler one to his rear at No 11. None of this has come as a surprise in that Matsuyama won two Asian Amateur championships and topped the world amateur rankings in 2010 before turning professional in 2013 and winning the Memorial Tournament the following summer.
His play-off that week with Kevin Na was one to remember, although not for obvious reasons. He hit his drive into a bunker and his second cannoned into a spectator before he got up and down for his winning par. Then there was still more excitement as he was handed his trophy by none other than Jack Nicklaus. "It was like a dream come true," he recalled.
Meanwhile, what did Mr Nicklaus have to say about the then 22-year-old Matsuyama. It was an emphatic, “This young man’s going to win a lot of tournaments.”
You would have to assume that Nicklaus will give a knowing nod if, on Sunday, the Japanese star is making off with the spoils.
Haas returned a 67 and was understandably proud of how well he had performed in the tough conditions, even if he felt he owed a lot to the soft greens which were stopping the ball at all the right moments. Knox, for his part, was born and brought up in a wind-tossed Inverness and nothing was surprising him.
Even though he escaped the Scottish weather to go to university in Florida, he long ago discovered that bad weather golf was all about “finding your edge and having a good attitude. If you can do that, you can maybe pick up half a shot mentally.”
Last year, Knox was the seventh alternate and did not have too much time to ponder on the strength of the opposition before he was off the tee. This year has been altogether different in that he is all too conscious of the great names who will be trying to wrest his title from him.
What he has had confirmed in the last two days is that the course is on his side: “I found myself with a lot of 200 yards shots today but that’s a good distance for me and probably why I do well round here.”