All of the pageantries that come with a Players Championship victory weren’t in place for Hideki Matsuyama this year.
There was no custom-food item awaiting him on the TPC Sawgrass restaurant menu, no Japanese flag flying high just beyond the 18th green. There was no Sunday evening press conference with the gold Players trophy by his side, nor throngs of waiting fans outside the scoring area desperate for his autograph.
That was the reality for Matsuyama and the rest of the PGA Tour, as Commissioner Jay Monahan took the unprecedented step of cancelling the remainder of The Players Championship, as well as the next ten events on the schedule, prior to the second round at the Stadium Course in response to the growing concern over the spread of the COVID-19 (coronavirus).
“I’m proud of the team. And I’m a fighter. I wanted to fight for our players and our fans and for this Tour to show how golf can unify and inspire,” Monahan said.
“But as the situation continued to escalate and there seemed to be more unknowns, it ultimately became a matter of when, and not if, we would need to call it a day.
“Our goal now,” Monahan continued, “is to focus on a plan for the near and long term and maintain the strength we’ve built through our organization over the past 51 years, and I’m confident we’ll do exactly that.”
That necessary decision stung for many more than just the players, the PGA Tour and its fanbase. Communities, charities, volunteers and local businesses felt the impact by the absence of the Tour in the weeks to follow.
The question will nevertheless linger over what might have been over the next 54 holes and whether Matsuyama would have ultimately been the one to reap all of the rewards that come with a Players Championship title.
The 28-year-old torched the Stadium Course in the tournament’s opening round, matching the course record with a 9-under 63. He carded eight birdies and an eagle to just one bogey—at the par-5 16th, he hit his second shot into the water. Matsuyama played the final five holes in 5-under, capped by the 25-foot eagle putt at the last (No. 9).
“I didn’t have the greatest warm-up (that) morning, but once play started I got into it, I got into a good groove,” he said.
Three of the previous four players to shoot that score went on to win: Webb Simpson in 2018, Jason Day in 2016 and Martin Kaymer in 2014. Other notable players to share the course record at TPC Sawgrass include Fred Couples, Greg Norman and Brooks Koepka.
“Those are all major (championship) winners that you mentioned,” Matsuyama said.
“To be honest, coming up on 18, I hit my second shot on the green and I knew if I made that putt, if I made the eagle there, I would be close to a course record. I’m happy it went in.”
Matsuyama led by two over Harris English, Christiaan Bezuidenhout and 2017 champion Si Woo Kim when officials halted play. Patrick Cantlay and Marc Leishman trailed by three.
“He played great,” said Cantlay, his playing partner.
“I played well, Hideki played really well. And it was actually sneaky hard out there.”
This was the first time in Matsuyama’s PGA Tour career that he held the 18-hole lead outright. That might have been welcome news in any other year, as 15 players had gone on to win here after having the first-round lead or co-lead.
“I’ve been working hard and have a lot of confidence now in my swing,” he said afterwards. “Last week was tough at Bay Hill (Arnold Palmer Invitational), but today I made some putts, and that seems to be the difference of recent late. That was really the catapult to me having a good round today.”
A thumb injury suffered prior to the 2018 Waste Management Phoenix Open seemed to momentarily delay his rise into the top of the world ranking. But the five-time PGA Tour winner has recaptured his mettle this season, carding four top-10 finishes over his last 11 starts. He tied for third at The CJ Cup and was runner-up to Tiger Woods at The ZOZO Championship.
He was in line for his third career top-10 at The Players before the tournament came to a halt. And past performance indicated that was likely, as his scoring average improved to 70.4 after Thursday. Only Tommy Fleetwood had a better Stadium Course record.
What’s next for Matsuyama, at least at the time of this writing, remains unknown. Though the situation remains fluid, the Charles Schwab Challenge is the next event on the PGA Tour schedule set to be played after the PGA of America postponed the US PGA to later in the year.
Matsuyama was aiming to become the first Japanese player to win at Augusta National, a place that remains special to him since earning a spot in the field after winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur in 2010 and 2011. He made the Masters cut in both appearances and was the low amateur in his debut.
He has made the cut in seven of his eight appearances at the Masters and finished inside the top 25 in five of the last six years. He was fifth in 2015 and tied for seventh in 2016.
“The first year when I (went), I didn’t know anything about the course,” he said.
“Had no fear. No demons. Just went out and played. The second-year was a big difference. I knew what was ahead and knew the difficulty of the golf course. And each year since then, I’ve been able to learn a little bit more of how to play (there).”
When and where Matsuyama plays next is anyone’s guess. About the only thing that is certain is that his game is ready to take him back into the winner’s circle, wherever that may be.