Augusta, Georgia: For several weeks, Hideki Matsuyama was a doubtful starter for his Masters defence. His never-say-die attitude, however, has now put him in the hunt for potentially more golf history at revered Augusta National.
On a brutal Friday where conditions were tricked up by swirly and gusting winds where only 13 players broke par during the second round, Japan’s first major champion fired a gutsy 3-under 69 to share second place with three others, and lie five strokes behind World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler who seized control of the tournament with a stellar 67. Scheffler, who has won three of his last five PGA TOUR tournaments, became the sixth player to hold a five-shot lead through 36 holes in Masters history with his 8-under 136 total.
First round leader Sungjae Im of Korea slipped back after a 74 to be bunched on 141 with Matsuyama, Charl Schwartzel of South Africa (69) and Shane Lowry of Ireland (68) while Tiger Woods maintained his fairy-tale comeback from a serious leg injury following a 74 to stand on 145 in tied 19th.
Only three golfers – Woods (2001, 2002), Nick Faldo (1989, 1990) and Jack Nicklaus (1965, 1966) – have successfully defended their titles in Masters folklore and Matsuyama has shown tremendous fighting spirit, first by overcoming his lingering injury woes, and then producing some wonderful golf to raise Asia’s hopes once more.
Following an opening 72 on Thursday, he used a hot start with three birdies over his first six holes to haul himself into contention. The 30-year-old, who became Asia’s second male major champion 12 months ago, missed several opportunities to go even lower, lipping out on the eighth and missing makeable opportunities in his closing two holes. Whenever he got into trouble, the eight-time PGA TOUR winner, who is currently fourth on the FedExCup standings, showed some deft touches to make par saves on Hole Nos. 12, 13 and 14 following a combination of missed greens and an errant shot into Rae’s Creek at the par-5 13th hole.
“I think I played well. Justin (Thomas), who I was playing alongside, easily shot 5-under and he gave me a boost which resulted in my good performance,” said Matsuyama. “My goal is to play good golf. But it’s easier said than done. I will make sure to prepare myself well (for the weekend).”
Two-time PGA TOUR winner, Im stayed strong in tough conditions to remain in the hunt for a first major victory following three birdies against five bogeys.
“I had a few sneak peeks at the leaderboard,” said Im, who was runner-up in his Masters debut in November 2020. “The weather was very fluctuating … the wind directions and everything was very confusing when I was trying to decide on hitting shots, some of the headwind made the iron selection difficult but things didn't go well. But we still have two more days to go.”
Thirteen years after countryman Y.E. Yang became Asia’s first major winner at the 2009 PGA Championship, the 24-year-old has big dreams of joining the exclusive major club but acknowledged he must stick closely to golf’s mantra of taking it “one shot at a time”. “I mean at this moment, I still have some golf to play and if I continue to focus on my game and just hit shot after shot, round after round, I think it'll come to good results,” said Im. “If I win a major championship, it'll certainly have a huge impact in a variety of ways but for junior golfers looking up to me and wanting to having dreams to come out to play here, it'll definitely have a positive impact.”
Image credit: Getty Images