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Dec. 19, 2022

A look-back on Hideki Matsuyama's shot in St. Andrews

Situated on Scotland’s eastern coast, facing the North Sea, St. Andrews is of major religious importance as the home of the St. Andrews Cathedral, which was built in the ninth century. Religious and civil wars raged here in the 16th century, and the memory lives on in the ruins of castle walls and other stone structures.

Taking pride of place in the center of the town is the University of St. Andrews. Opened in 1413, this is Scotland’s oldest university. And this proud British college town is also a holy ground for golfers.

The courses at the St. Andrew’s golf complex are resplendent in nature with a religious atmosphere. The oldest of the seven courses that remain today was opened in 1552. Golfers have enjoyed this orderly course with effortless holiness for over 550 years and counting.

Overlooked by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R&A) building, one of the most revered institutions in the golfing world, the traditional courses are respected—or envied—by golfers around the world. But the traditional scenery surrounding them is nothing like the staid image the complex has.

 The elegant homes, restaurants and golf shops that line the streets are filled with the daily sounds of a cherished old town: rhythmic footsteps on cobblestones; the song of wild birds circling over the coast. And every few years, bagpipes play Scottish folk tunes as the town hosts the world’s oldest golf tournament: the Open Championship.

 After being canceled due to COVID-19, the Open returned to St. Andrews in 2022, marking seven years since the last time it was held here and the 150th championship since the first Open in 1860. A fitting location for such an important event. And for Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, this was the first opportunity in three years to compete for the claret jug.

Day 1

 Matsuyama placed sixth at his first Open in 2013 but failed to break the top ten since, and did not even make the final round on his last four attempts.

 Stepping up for first tee at 10:20am on the first day, Matsuyama started off with a bogey at the third hole but regained ground with a birdie at the fifth hole, a par five hole, and another one at the eighth hole. The wind changed throughout the day but Matsuyama judged it well, carefully making his way from hole to hole.

Matsuyama’s tactic for majors is to minimize errors from the beginning—while certainly not falling behind—as he looks for his chance to score. Of his four birdies, three bogeys and failure to achieve a better score than 71, Matsuyama said “I made some mistakes but I think I kept my plays as low as possible,” expressing both frustration with his performance and an awareness of how he could regain ground.

 The highlight was a moment set against the peaceful scenery at the center of golfing history. In the second half, a tailwind sent Matsuyama’s second shot at the 17th hole to the right side of the green, where it landed on the asphalt. To thunderous applause from the fans behind him on the stone wall, Matsuyama made a precise hit with a nine iron, sending the ball flying across the elevated green, where it landed two meters from the pin. The skill of that spectacular third shot caught the attention of the most discerning Scottish golf enthusiasts.

 Players cannot pick up the ball or receive assistance in this area. Matsuyama had made every last preparation from his course check before the Open began, even practicing rebound shots from near the stone wall. This shot was not unanticipated by Matsuyama, whose only comment was a casual “I’m glad it went well” after he finished the hole and achieved a birdie finish at the final 18th hole.

Day 2

 The star of the 2022 Open was Tiger Woods. This was Woods’ third major in a season that marked his comeback from a serious injury to his right leg in a single-car accident in California, USA the previous February. In May, Woods dropped out of the US PGA Championship at the end of the third day. A living legend who has won two Opens at St. Andrews, Woods received the warmest reception of all of the players at this Open.

 It was past 3:00pm when Matsuyama began playing the second round. At that time, Woods walked the fairway of the 18th hole and crossed the Swilcan Bridge, receiving lengthy applause. It was a riveting scene that represented a change of generations, the passing of time.

 Matsuyama started off with a solid birdie at the first hole. At the third hole, he made a put almost 9m long behind the pin, landing on the left green of the cup and securing a second birdie. Matsuyama was not able to achieve the same power after this, however, and languished on the green. Missing an opportunity for another birdie, Matsuyama made a series of pars before hitting a bogey into the fairway bunker in his tee shot for the 13th hole.

 At the 16th hole, Matsuyama made his second shot that cleared the gallery stands, from the third hole to the left, but failed to land it in the green, making the shot a bogey. This was followed by a series of bogeys at the 17th hole due to errors in the short putts he made.

 With a score of 72, Matsuyama made it into the final round for the first time in five years, but was dissatisfied with his performance after his promising first three holes. “I wasn’t able to play as well as I wanted to,” he commented. Sadly, the next day would be another moving day for Matsuyama.

Day 3

 Amid beautiful weather at St. Andrews, a series of players made their way up from the bottom. Sadly, Matsuyama was not one of them.

Hole four in the first half saw a three-putt bogey, dampening any optimism about a turnaround in Matsuyama’s performance. This was followed by a deeply regrettable shot at the sixth hole. A driver shot pushed the ball to the right of the bunkers scattered to the left and right, rendering the ball unplayable. After placing the ball on the green, Matsuyama made a 15m par-putt before moving back and forth around the cup and eventually retreating after a four-putt triple bogey.

 The second half brought wind and more struggles for Matsuyama, who hit a bogey at the 11th hole (par 3) when he sent his first shot into a bunker, followed by a double bogey at the 14th hole (par 5), where Matsuyama needed two shots to get the ball out of a greenside bunker.

 “I hit good bunker shots but ended up with a double bogey,” Matsuyama commented despondently. After meditating to prevent his frustration with himself from affecting the rest of his game, Matsuyama holed out at 76, taking his total to 19 strokes higher than the top player.

*Final day

 By this point, the claret jug was a dot on the horizon for Matsuyama, but he knew that as long as he was on the course, he had to keep fighting. Every golfer, no matter how far ahead or behind they are, has the right to play the same 18 holes, and each hole is an opportunity. On the final day, in 80th place after three overs, Matsuyama teed off in the third group at 7:40am, over seven hours ahead of the last group of players vying to win the championship.

 In the still of the morning, Matsuyama played with ferocious passion. At the first hole, Matsuyama’s second shot from the fairway landed in the creek in front of the green. After a drop, Matsuyama took his fourth shot with a wedge. The ball approached the pin and entered the cup in a par that marked Matsuyama’s return from the brink.

“After that start, I rode the wave,” Matsuyama commented. At the third hole, he used a spin to bring the ball back from the back of the pin on his second shot, and took the opportunity to hit his first birdie. The power and accuracy of Matsuyama’s shots returned, and at the fifth hole (par 5), he sent the ball 600 yards, getting it into the green in two shots despite a gentle wind. Two putts secured another birdie.

 Matsuyama kept up that momentum during the Sunday back nine, with a series of plays that appeared to be testing whether he had really got back on form. He hit a bogey at the 13th hole but immediately followed it with a birdie at the 14th hole, the way he bounced back with a birdie at the 18th hole on day 1 after hitting a shot from the asphalt and scoring a bogey at the 17th hole. His final score of 67 was the second best he has ever achieved at St. Andrews.

 After a worrying four days and 72 holes, with a series of failures in the middle, Matsuyama’s final ranking was 68th. Matsuyama attributes this to wrist pain that he had been dealing with since the previous week. In spite of this, he was determined not to leave the Open early: nothing was more important to him than advancing past the heats at his first Open in five years. Such is the mindset of a major champion at St. Andrews.

All in all, Matsuyama played 286 strokes in the old course. All of them are a springboard for future accomplishments. For now, Matsuyama is taking one step at a time until he can play at the holy ground of golf again.