AKRON, OHIO - Hideki Matsuyama was along for the ride four years ago when he watched Tiger Woods tear apart Firestone Country Club on his way to a 61 in the second round, which tied the South course record and sent Woods to a seven-shot victory in the Bridgestone Invitational.
“I just couldn’t believe that anyone could shoot 61 on this golf course,” Matsuyama said.
He sure didn’t expect that from himself Sunday, especially after warming up so badly he wasn’t sure which the way ball was going. Some four hours later, the 25-year-old Japanese star had a place alongside Woods in the record book.
Matsuyama finished with three straight birdies to cap off a runaway victory with a 9-under 61, giving him his second World Golf Championship in nine months. It was the lowest final round in four decades at venerable Firestone, and it gave Matsuyama a five-shot victory over Zach Johnson.
He finished at 16-under 264 and moved back to the top of the FedEx Cup standings.
Matsuyama found more than just his swing after he left the range. He might have also found the game that first elevated him into golf’s elite last fall when he had four victories and two runner-up finishes over six straight tournaments.
The timing couldn’t be better with the PGA Championship four days away and fans in Japan clamoring for their first Japanese major champion.
“I hope their expectations aren’t too high,” Matsuyama said. “But my expectations at the beginning of this week weren’t that high, either, and here we are.”
He won for the third time this season, joining Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth for most on the PGA Tour.
“Once he gets going, he just keeps the hammer down and keeps it going,” Rory 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 caliber of player he is. I expect him to be right up there next week, as well.”
Matsuyama, who started the final round two shots behind Thomas Pieters and Zach Johnson, quickly got into the hunt by chipping in from 60 feet for eagle. He took the lead for the first time on No. 6 with a 15-foot birdie, and then he was gone.
Woods shot 61 twice at Firestone. Jose Maria Olazabal in 1990 and Sergio Garcia in 2014 were the other players to do it. Matsuyama knew from his experience playing with Woods in 2013 what it would take. And just like everything else on this day, he made it look easy.
He spun a wedge back to 4 feet on the par-5 16th for birdie. He holed an 8-foot putt on the 17th hole and then closed with another approach and settled 6 feet away.
He has now won two World Golf Championships by a combined 12 shots, having captured the HSBC Champions by seven shots in Shanghai last fall.
Johnson, winless since his British Open victory two years ago at St. Andrews, pulled within one shot with a long birdie putt at the 11th, but he could do no better than pars the rest of the way and shot 68.
Pieters was never in the game after missing 4-foot par putts on successive holes to close out the front nine. He closed with a 71.
The only other player with a chance was Charley Hoffman, who also was one shot behind on the back nine. Hoffman was three shots behind on the par-5 16th hole when his caddie suggested laying up because there was no place to get it close by going for the green 282 yards away.
“I’m trying to win a tournament,” Hoffman said. “I’m tired of finishing second.”
He ripped a 3-wood onto the green and over the back into light rough, chipped weakly to 15 feet and made par anyway. He wound up with a 66 to finish third, though it was a big step in trying to make his first Presidents Cup team.
Matsuyama broke the mark for the lowest final round by a winner at Firestone by one shot with his final birdie. Fulton Allem shot 62 when he won the old World Series of Golf in 1993.
McIlroy got within one shot of the lead on the front nine with three birdies in six holes until his momentum stalled with a few missed putts. He stumbled on the back nine and shot 69, leaving him in a tie for fifth with Russell Knox, Paul Casey and Adam Hadwin.
Spieth closed with a 68 and tied for 13th in his last tournament before he goes for the career Grand Slam in the PGA Championship. After the Bridgestone Invitational, add one more player — Matsuyama — to the list of major obstacles in his way.
“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.”