Highlighted by a birdie-birdie finish in regulation, Hideki Matsuyama overcame a three-stroke deficit in the final round by firing a bogey-free 4-under 67 and then dispatched Rickie Fowler, who also shot 67, in a dramatic four-hole playoff.
How They Got There:
In a sign of things to come, Matsuyama and Fowler shared the first-round lead (with Shane Lowry) after 65s. Fowler posted his first out of the early wave, which began 45 minutes tardy due to frost. Matsuyama added his later, two groups ahead of a suspension in play due to darkness that stranded 33 players. Their first-round scores may have matched, but they never played together until the final threesome on Sunday, both entering the finale on 10-under, three adrift of 54-hole leader Danny Lee.
By the time they arrived to the 317-yard par-4 17th, Fowler led by two over Harris English – who shot 66 and was in the clubhouse on 12-under – and Matsuyama. Fowler hit driver and drove the green, but his ball never stopped until it went through the green and into the water. He eventually dropped a shot for the first time in 22 holes. Matsuyama took advantage, getting up-and-down from 17 yards short of the target for birdie-3 from 2’7”.
“Rickie opened the door for me, and I was able to walk through it,” Matsuyama later said through a translator.
The pair, now tied, both found the short grass on the par-4 18th with Fowler’s miraculously bouncing out of a fairway bunker and leaving him 95 yards. Matsuyama went first from 106 yards and landed his 17’8” from the hole. Fowler got well inside him at 9’6”. The would-be-champ was clutch, walking his birdie in and showing his first sign of outward emotion with an animated fist-pump, almost in response to the pro-Fowler party he was crashing. The American answered and it was back to the 18th for sudden death.
The Japanese star said, “I’d say probably 99 percent of the gallery were cheering for Rickie, but that gave me the motivation to go out and do it and win…. The putt I made there was probably the best putt I’ve ever made in my life.”
The duo battled to a draw thru three playoff holes playing the 18th twice (matching par-birdie); the par-4 10th (pars); before returning to the 17th. Fowler downsized to less-than-driver, but he found the water again, this time short and left, opening the door for Matsuyama, who won with a routine two-putt par.
With the win, Matsuyama improves to 2-0 in playoffs and at the age of 23 years, 11 months, and 13 days, becomes just the second player with multiple wins on TOUR prior to the age of 25, joining World No. 1 Jordan Spieth. It was his second TOUR title in his 60th start as a pro and came in his fifth start of the season and third WMPO appearance. Both of his victories have been in come-from-behind fashion having also erased a two-shot deficit in the final round to win the 2014 Memorial in extra time over Kevin Na (one hole). Matsuyama led the field in greens in regulation at 77.78 percent (56/72), including 16 each in rounds three and four, and vaults to a career-best 12th in the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR).
Rickie Fowler: Was the highest-ranked player in Scottsdale at No. 4 in OWGR. Like the majority of the field, he may have to rethink his strategy at the reachable par-4 17th. He bogeyed it three of the last five times he played it this week, including twice on Sunday, both times after hitting his tee shot into the water. NOTE: He’s now found the water nine times in eight WMPO appearances.
As mentioned earlier, but again for emphasis, Fowler held a two-shot lead when he arrived there in regulation and after beginning the finale three adrift, was perfectly positioned for his fourth TOUR title, with each of his previous three being come-from-behind wins. We all saw what happened. To his credit, the 27-year-old was game with his clutch birdie on the 72nd hole to tie Matsuyama at 14-under 270. He settles for his ninth career runner-up finish (152nd pro start) and second solo runner-up at the WMPO (2010). Fowler was visibly shaken in his post-round interview after his playoff record had dropped to 2-2.
“It’s going to hurt, because I felt like I had it, especially with the way I was swinging. I mean, the hard part is having, you know, all my friends and grandpa (here) who haven’t seen me win,” Fowler said.
What Else Did We Learn?
When your top-tier fantasy players miss the cut in their previous start, it may pay for gamers to have a short memory as Matsuyama and Fowler had both missed the cut the week prior at the Farmers.
Also, the competition on the PGA TOUR is fierce, with three (nearly four) of the first five events in 2016 having been decided in playoffs. The two exceptions are last week’s Farmers, where K.J. Choi had a chance on the last hole to force extra time, and the Hyundai TOC, where Jordan Spieth won the limited-field event by eight shots over Patrick Reed.
Harris English: The two-time TOUR winner was making his 117th career start and fifth straight Phoenix Open appearance. He was looking for his first win since the 2014 OHL Classic and closed in six-birdie, one-bogey 66, up four spots on the day and good for solo third, two swings back of the playoff at 12-under 272 (68-67-71-66). It’s his personal best at TPC Scottsdale and first top 10 of the season in his seventh event. The 26-year-old bumped from 106th in OWGR to 79th.
Danny Lee: After opening in 67-66-67, Lee held a three-shot advantage over Matsuyama and Fowler. It was his first 54-hole lead on TOUR in his 110th career start. Three holes in, the lead vanished, following dropped shots at two and three, and he would end the day with five bogeys against three birdies for 2-over 73. The 25-year-old settled for solo fourth at 11-under 273, cashing his first check at TPC Scottsdale in his fourth appearance. It’s his first top 10 of the season on six starts and first since T2 to Spieth at last year’s TOUR Championship. Lee led the field in driving accuracy at 80.36 percent (45/56).
Bubba Watson: The two-time and back-to-back WMPO runner-up entered the week as the outright odds-fave at 11/1. On the lead-in, he inexplicably bashed the recently renovated (2014-15) set-up, stating in his pre-tourney presser, “I don’t like it. I’m not going to be PC about it,” adding that he was only here because of his “three beautiful sponsors.” After facing intense criticism, he tried to walk back his comments but the damage was already done. Several times during the telecast, Watson was heard being booed loudly, most notably on Saturday at the raucous par-3 16th. The 37-year-old was never a factor, posting 7-under 277, back-dooring a T14 with a final-round 66. He drops out of the top 5 in OWGR to No. 6, replaced by Henrik Stenson, who finished T6 in a different desert on the European Tour.
Boo Weekley: The 42-year-old entered the week on the heels of three straight missed cuts and had just one top 10 (T9/2008) in six previous visits. He posted rounds of 71-68-65-70 and at 10-under 270, finished solo fifth. The three-time TOUR winner’s 65 in round three was tied second best of the day (and tourney) bettered only by Scottsdale resident Bryce Molder’s 64/R3.
Will Wilcox: Of the five players who finished T6 on 9-under 275, Wilcox was the biggest mover in the finale, up 26 spots on the day following a seven-birdie one-bogey 65. The 29-year-old shared top honors of 31 first-timers at TPC Scottsdale with Ireland’s Shane Lowry, who was an 18-hole tri-leader after opening in 65, but closed in 70-72-68. Wilcox finished second in the field in strokes gained: putting (7.615), including a sizzling 3.400 in the final round.
Besides Bubba (listed above), we’re giving a pass to Brandt Snedeker in this category. After sticking around an extra day at the Farmers, he was a late arrival to Scottsdale and perhaps with one eye on the AT&T Pebble Beach, where he’s the defending champ, posted a respectable, though somewhat disappointing T33 on rounds of 67-71-74-68.
Brooks Koepka: The defending champ has to take the top spot here after finishing T41 on 2-under 282 (67-72-74-69), 13 shots worse than his winning total last year. Of course, that was in his tourney debut, so at least there’s more data to analyze going forward as it’s never easy to defend a title on TOUR or more players would do it.
Phil Mickelson: The three-time WMPO champ fared better this week than he did last week at the Farmers, where he was also a three-time winner, but missed the cut by two after 69-76. After opening his 27th appearance at TPC Scottsdale in 69-71, he raced to solo sixth thru 54 holes after a bogey-free 65, but settled for T11 with a pedestrian even-par 71 in the finale. The Sunday charge that commentators (and gamers) desperately hoped for didn’t materialize, alternating three birdies with three bogeys. His only three circles came on the three par 5s.
“I didn’t shoot the number this week probably that I felt I could or should, but I feel like my game is right where I want it. I will continue working on it. I’m excited to go to Pebble and play up there where I have had success,” Mickelson said afterwards.
Take note, the Hall of Famer is a four-time champ at the AT&T Pebble Beach and is also the tournament’s all-time money winner.
John Huh: The 25-year-old posted his first top 10 in five tries at the WMPO which included three consecutive missed cuts in his last three visits. His T6 chases T8 at the Farmers and was his fifth straight cash of the season (nine starts) dating back to T9 at the RSM.
Following a brief, one-week respite, the TOUR returns to California for this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach (scheduled 54-hole cut). Snedeker prevailed here last year by three shots over Nick Watney. Stay tuned to this space for all the latest player news and opinions as the TOUR readies for its 13th tournament of the season.