Hideki Matsuyama arrived at the HSBC Champions as the first Japanese player in nearly two decades to reach the top 10 in the world ranking. His 19 birdies over 36 holes in biting chill and swirling wind helped explain how he got there.
Even as the weather shifted dramatically Friday at Sheshan International, Matsuyama kept piling up the birdies. One last birdie on the par-5 18th gave him a 7-under 65 and a three-shot lead going into the weekend of the final World Golf Championships event of the year.
“He is playing very well,” said Rory McIlroy, who was six shots behind. “And he’ll be tough to catch.”
Matsuyama was at 13-under 131 and led by three shots over defending champion Russell Knox (68) and Bill Haas (67). He shouldn’t have been surprised by the result because it was his eighth consecutive score in the 60s dating to the second round of the Tour Championship.
What made this one so satisfying were the conditions.
Rain the last two days gave way to a strong wind when Matsuyama was warming up, and the wind made the sharp dip of temperatures into the 50s feel even worse.
“I thought maybe just a couple under par would be a good score,” Matsuyama said. “So I’m really happy with how it ended up today. It was windy and cold. The ball, it’s hard to control. It was tough out there today.”
It was plenty tough for Adam Scott, who had a pair of double bogeys on the par 5s on his way to an 80. Kevin Kisner, a runner-up at the HSBC Champions last year, made a 9 on the final hole for an 80.
Fifteen players still managed to break 70 because of the rain-softened greens, and while Matsuyama’s 65 was the best score of the second round, making it even more impressive was that he also had two bogeys. On Thursday, he had 10 birdies against four bogeys.
“Nineteen birdies … that’s really, really strong,” Knox said.
Matsuyama already is having his biggest year since he began playing regularly round the world in 2014. He overcame a two-shot deficit over the last two holes and beat Rickie Fowler in the Phoenix Open. He had another top 10 in the Masters. And while he went into a summer lull of poor putting — Matsuyama missed the cut in the U.S. Open and British Open — the 24-year-old returned to form at the PGA Championship with his best finish in a major (tie for fourth) and has been steady ever since.
Two weeks ago, he won the Japan Open for his ninth victory worldwide. He was runner-up to Justin Thomas in Malaysia last week, pushing his PGA Tour earnings for the year to over $4.6 million and moving him to No. 10.
The last Japanese player in the top 10 was Jumbo Ozaki during the week of the 1998 Masters.
A better attitude has helped this week, too. Matsuyama doesn’t have much of a record in the World Golf Championships, with his only top 10 at the Dell Match Play a year ago in San Francisco when he reached the quarterfinals, only to be blown out by McIlroy.
In three previous appearances at the HSBC Champions, he withdrew twice and tied for 41st.
“I haven’t really played well here before,” he said. “So before coming here, I was a little bit nervous again thinking, ‘Well, maybe it’s not going to be a good week for me.’ But then I decided, ‘Let’s just have fun this week.’ It’s made a difference.”
It didn’t look like much fun on Friday, particularly the final hour when the temperature dropped and a light rain fell.
“This felt like a cold day at Pebble Beach,” said Daniel Berger, who had a 70 and was in the group five shots behind.
McIlroy thrived, too, and at least got back into the mix going into the weekend at Sheshan. He figured a 66 would do the trick, and it might have felt even better if Matsuyama had not gone one better in the second round.
McIlroy’s only blemish came at the reachable par-4 16th, when his tee shot was just right of the green and in a hazard. He found the ball in the bushes and thought for the longest time about playing it, constantly rehearsing a swing to see if the branches would allow him to make contact.
A wiser head (and advice from his caddie) prevailed, McIlroy took a penalty drop and got out with a bogey. He made up for it with a birdie on the final hole for a 66 that at least has him range, though much depends on Matsuyama.
“There’s definitely some rust in the 71 yesterday. I feel like I’ve shaken most of that off,” McIlroy said. “It should be a good weekend. I’m just happy to be in the mix.”