“It’s my 10th year, but I’ve never seen the greens so firm and fast,” Matsuyama said through an interpreter. “So it was like a new course for me playing today, and I was fortunate to get it around well.”
Asked if he’d like the course to be less firm and fast later in the week, Matsuyama said: “That’s a tough question. Please ask everybody else.”
That’s a smart, politically correct answer. Even former champions are reluctant to complain about conditions at Augusta. Best for Matsuyama to avoid that kind of attention. He’ll get plenty of the good kind if he can become the first Japanese player to win a major.
Matsuyama has the game to do it. He’s beaten the players in the world. Matsuyama’s five Tour victories include the Memorial and two World Golf Championship events. He also won Tiger Woods’ invitation-only Hero World Challenge in 2016.
Matsuyama can win under pressure. He’s 3-0 in tournament playoffs, with extra-hole victories against Kevin Na, Rickie Fowler and Webb Simpson. That nerve hasn’t yet translated to a victory at a major championship. Matsuyama’s best finish was a tie for second at the 2017 U.S. Open, and he needed a final-round 66 to get within four strokes of winner Brooks Koepka.
It’s absurd to portray Matsuyama’s career as a disappointment. It’s very hard to win any Tour event. It’s especially difficult to win prominent tournaments. Matsuyama first did at 22-years old, when he won the Memorial. Yet he hasn’t won since August 2017 despite posting good results.
Matsuyama is the golfer you pick for your fantasy team at majors because he’s a good bet to make the cut and finish respectably. He’s also the guy you don’t pick to win because he doesn’t close the deal. It usually takes more than steady and consistent golf to win majors. At some point, contenders must make a move to take the title.
Matsuyama is in position to do that on Friday. He was par or better in seven of his eight previous second rounds at Augusta. Matsuyama posted a 68 in the second round in November before shooting par in both weekend rounds and finishing tied for 13th. He’ll be among the golfers chasing Rose, who dusted the field on Thursday.
But the eventual Masters champion has had at least a share of the lead after the first round in just 11 tournaments. Only five golfers have won after leading outright after 18 holes. This is the 85th Masters. The eventual winner has been far more likely to come off the lead after the first day.
Rose is among 26 golfers who led the Masters after the first round and never won it. The list includes guys who shined at Augusta before fading into relative obscurity. But some golf legends also had at least a piece of the Masters lead after 18 holes and didn’t win the tournament that year or ever: Lee Trevino, Hubert Green, Lanny Wadkins (twice) and Greg Norman (twice).
Rose came from behind to best Phil Mickelson in the 2013 U.S. Open for his first and only victory in a major. He now holds the second-biggest lead at the Masters after round one. Matsuyama is good enough to take advantage if Rose falters. Winning the Masters before he’s 30-years old would change the perception of Matsuyama as an “old” young guy who’s very good but doesn’t win anymore.