(Reuters) – Hideki Matsuyama turned a terrible warm-up into one of the best rounds of his career, matching the course record with a nine-under-par 61 to charge to an emphatic five-stroke victory at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio on Sunday.
Starting the day two strokes from the lead, Matsuyama never looked back after chipping in for an unlikely 60-foot eagle at the par-five second at Firestone Country Club.
He added seven birdies and turned the final round into a one-man exhibition, offering a timely reminder of why he is likely to become the first Japanese player to win a men’s major.
Arriving at the 16th tee, Matsuyama knew he needed to birdie the final three holes to equal the course record held by Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia and Jose Maria Olazabal.
And he responded to the challenge with a series of precise approach shots, completing his closing birdie hat-trick by draining a six-footer at the par-four 18th.
Matsuyama finished at 16-under 264, while American Zach Johnson (68) claimed second on 11 under with his compatriot Charley Hoffman (66) another shot back in third.
“I played with Tiger four years ago when he shot 61 so I knew 61 was the number today,” the Japanese world number three told CBS sports via an interpreter. “I knew if I birdied 16, 17 and 18 I could get there.”
His triumphant finish was a far cry from his pre-round practice session, during which his swing felt completely out-of-synch.
“You wouldn’t have believed how I warmed up this morning,” he said.
“I was not hitting it good on the range. I did hit some good shots (during the round) but I was nervous all the way around because I really wasn’t sure of my swing today.”
It was Matsuyama’s second World Golf Championships victory, after the HSBC Champions in Shanghai last year.
The 25-year-old will head to Quail Hollow in North Carolina for the final major of the year, the PGA Championship starting on Thursday, as one of the favourites after top-15 finishes in the previous three majors this year.
Some other big names also will take positive vibes to the PGA Championship, including Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy who tied for fifth at seven-under in his first start with new caddie Harry Diamond.
“We’re working well out there today and I’m excited to be with him again next week,” McIlroy said.
American Jordan Spieth also had a solid week in preparation for a tilt at clinching the career grand slam of all four majors after finishing equal 13th at four-under.
“My game improved each and every day, even though my score didn’t reflect it today so I’m really excited going into Quail Hollow,” Spieth said.
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, editing by Neil Robinson)