Hideki Matsuyama wins Hero World Challenge; Tiger Woods returns after 15 months

NASSAU, Bahamas — Hideki Matsuyama was only 5 when he first saw Tiger Woods, watching on videotape that 1997 Masters victory. Even sweeter was standing next to Woods in his Sunday red shirt to receive yet another trophy.

Right now, the Japanese star can’t seem to lose.

The return of Tiger Woods ended with Matsuyama winning his third straight tournament, and fourth out of his last five, in the Hero World Challenge.

“I can’t say that I played well today, but I did win Tiger’s tournament,” Matsuyama said. “And what a great honour that is.”

Matsuyama had a few nervous moments on the back nine at Albany when his seven-shot lead at the start of the final round was reduced to two shots over British Open champion Henrik Stenson with two to play.

Matsuyama closed with two pars for a 1-over 73 and a two-shot victory.

Woods found plenty of positives from his first tournament in more than 15 months, though the final round featured three double bogeys and a 76 — the highest score of the tournament — that dropped him to 15th place out of 17 players.

“It feels good to be back out here playing again, competing and trying to beat the best players in the world,” Woods said. “I missed it. I love it.”

Matsuyama is moving up in class quickly.

His big run started with a three-shot victory in the Japan Open. He was runner-up in Malaysia, then became the first Asian to win a World Golf Championships title with a seven-shot victory over Stenson and Daniel Berger in the HSBC Champions. Two weeks later, he won the Taiheiyo Masters on the Japan Golf Tour by seven. And except for a few mistakes on the back nine at Albany, this was another runaway.

“It’s going to give him a boat load of confidence going into next year, and he’s going to be one of the top guys to beat for a very long time,” Woods said.

Matsuyama, who finished at 18-under 270, won $1 million and remained at No. 6 in the world. He ended his streak of 17 consecutive founds in the 60s, though all that mattered was the trophy presentation with Woods.

“It’s tough with a seven-stroke lead,” he said. “But somehow I was able to pull it off. Hopefully, this experience will help me in the future.”

Stenson, playing with him in the final group, closed with a 68 and made Matsuyama work hard for this title.

Matsuyama still had a six-shot lead going into the back nine when he went bunker-to-bunker around the 10th green and made double bogey. Then, he three-putted from about 18 feet on the 14th hole, where Stenson made birdie for a two-shot swing.

Just like that, the lead was down to three with four holes remaining. And it looked like it would get even closer on the par-5 15th. Matsuyama was in a greenside bunker in two and didn’t quite reach the green. Stenson had a 45-foot eagle putt. But the Swede left it about 10 feet short and three-putted for par, and Matsuyama matched him.

Stenson also three-putted the 10th, costing him another chance to get closer.

“Whatever he gave me on 14, I gave it straight back to him on 15,” Stenson said.

Stenson drilled a 4-iron into 4 feet on the 16th for another birdie, and Matsuyama’s approach barely cleared the bunker, leading to par to stay two ahead.

The tournament was still in doubt on the 18th hole. Matsuyama’s shot from the rough bounded over the green, while Stenson had 12-feet for birdie. If the Swede made and Matsuyama failed to get up-and-down, it was headed for a playoff. The Japanese star steadied himself with a good pitch to tap-in range, and that wrapped it up.

“He hit a very classy chip there,” Stenson said.

Matsuyama now heads home to Japan for a break, though he won’t put the clubs away for long. He starts back in Hawaii the first week of the new year, and already he is thinking ahead to April and Augusta National.

“Starting next week all my focus and preparation will be for the Masters,” he said. “Hopefully, along the way I can play well on the PGA Tour. But the Masters is my next goal.”

DIVOTS: Matsuyama borrowed the caddie of good friend Hiroshi Iwata this week, Mei Inui. He said she helped keep him positive when his lead was shrinking. His regular caddie, known as Dice-K, returns to work in Hawaii. … Rickie Fowler (69), Matt Kuchar (70) and Dustin Johnson (71) tied for third.

Fairways Magazine

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