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Xander bests Hideki, Brendan Steele hits nothing but cup and Rickie Fowler bounces back from Vegas fizzle

October 13, 2022
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Hideki Matsuyama hits his third shot on the 11th hole during the first round of the Zozo Championship.

Atsushi Tomura

It was an inspired, if somewhat obvious pairing on Thursday for the first round of the Zozo Championship in Chiba, Japan. Hideki Matsuyama, the national hero, Masters winner and defending Zozo champion, was put together with Xander Schauffele, who may be the country’s second-favorite golfer, given his family’s Japanese ties and his gold-medal triumph in the 2021 Japan Olympics. The third man in the grouping, the humorously hot-tempered Tyrrell Hatton, doesn’t exactly personify Switzerland as the middleman. But he’s as fun to watch as anybody and entertained at one point by coming back from making an 8 with four straight birdies.

Unfortunately, cold temperatures and some heavy rain dampened the crowd’s numbers and enthusiasm at Narashino Country Club, and Matsuyama didn’t provide a lot of sunshine. A year ago, he opened the Zozo with a 64, but on Thursday (very early in the morning, East Coast time), the 30-year-old struggled with his putting on the wet greens and managed to shoot only one-over-par 71.

It was a downer for the player many prognosticators favored this week. After all, Matsuyama had shot under par in all of his previous 12 rounds played in the Zozo in the two times it was contested in Japan and the COVID-19 version held at Sherwood Country Club in 2020.

Schauffele, who bested Matsuyama by three shots in the Olympics (the Japenese star was ousted on the first hole in a seven-man playoff for the bronze), outdid him by four strokes in this round with a 67. Brendan Steele was alone in first with his opening 64.

As tough as the conditions were, Schauffele said he enjoyed seeing the adoration for Matsuyama. “Yeah, it was cool,” he said. “He brought out most of the fans here on a wet and rainy day, so much appreciated.”

The field got to played preferred lies, but the storms got rough at times, with the marquee group hitting the worst of it around the par-5 18th hole—usually one of the easiest on the course) after starting on No. 10.

“I guess luck of the draw based on what hole you're on,” Schauffele said. “I hit right when it started raining pretty hard and I couldn't even fly my driver 250 yards. I hit a pretty good drive and just kind of saw the ball get knocked down by the rain, so I'm happy the rain stopped shortly after.”

Steele catches nothing but cup

A lithe 6-foot-2, Steele looks like he could have played college hoops, and he made golf’s version of a slam dunk as one of the seven birdies in his round.

The native Californian was simply trying to save a par at the par-4 17th after he had to punch out of the trees on his second shot. He had 57 yards to the hole and watched as his wedge shot flew straight into the cup, with the beautiful sound of the click caught on the broadcast audio.

“It happens to be a pretty good number for me, and I hit a nice shot and I was lucky just to find the cup on the fly,” Steele said.

The birdie came in a stretch of four straight to end Steele’s second nine of 31.

Steele, who had four top-10s last season and celebrated his last win in the 2017 Safeway Open, is coming off two missed cuts to start the 2022-23 season. But he’s also got an affinity for the Narashino layout, where he tied for second last year by opening and closing the Zozo with 66s.

“I like to draw the ball off the tee, at least when I'm swinging well, and I think there's quite a few draws out here,” Steele said, “so I feel comfortable with the shots that are maybe a little harder for some guys that have a different ball flight. And then I've been really comfortable on the greens. The greens are difficult, they have a lot of slope, a lot of speed, but from the start last year I felt really comfortable here and that's really a key for me.”

Kim and Im weren’t laughing

In another good pairing, new PGA Tour star Tom Kim—the winner of last week’s Shriners Children’s Open in Las Vegas—played with close friend and recent Presidents Cup teammate Sungjae Im. The two were filmed earlier in the week laughing hysterically while trying out a number of cartoonish, oversized putters.

The levity didn’t extend to the first round. Kim balanced four birdies with four bogeys in shooting and even-par 70, while Im salvaged at 71 after suffering a nightmare double bogey on the par-4 15th that could have been much worse. Im’s drive ended up on a steep slope above a bunker, and he all but shanked his next shot, getting somewhat lucky when a tree stopped his ball from going farther into the woods. But then Im threw that break away when his third shot struck a branch and caromed behind him. Im did get his fourth shot onto the green and two-putted for a 6.

Fowler rebounds from Vegas disappointment

Any Rickie Fowler fan had to be thrilled in early September with the news that Fowler was returning to the teaching fold of Butch Harmon. The two worked together during some of Fowler’s best seasons, but then Harmon stopped traveling and Fowler decided to go a different direction. He hired John Tillery, with whom he worked for three years. It was ultimately not a winning combination, considering Fowler hasn’t notched a victory since the 2019 WM Phoenix Open while falling to his current standing of 160th in the Official World Golf Ranking.

So, it was then a big letdown that after Fowler showed signs of life with a T-6 in the season-opening Fortinet Championship in Napa, Calif., he saw Harmon in Las Vegas—and promptly missed the cut by shooting a couple of 70s in Sin City.

Which Rickie would show up in Japan? Apparently, the one who is feeling much better about his game. Fowler striped some irons in the bad conditions and birdied four of the five par 3s to overcome a double bogey and shoot three-under 67.

“Definitely happy with it. Lot of good stuff out there today, just had a couple squirrelly ones when we had the rain come through for a couple holes,” Fowler said. “Had one on 17 when I missed the fairway there [and made bogey]. When the ball gets wet, you lose a little control. Other than that, I feel like I did a good job, drove the ball well. And playing from the fairway with it being lift, clean and place, you can dry the ball off and definitely gives you a lot more control when you're playing in conditions like this.”

Of the Vegas letdown, Fowler said, “Obviously didn't have the week we wanted last week, drove it poorly. But with some of the changes we've made and to have the finish that we did at Napa and kind of seeing a lot of good things, I'm definitely happy about it and excited to be here and off to a good start.”

Of course, the coaching change wasn’t the only shakeup on Fowler’s team. He also parted ways with longtime caddie Joe Skovron and now has another veteran looper, Ricky Romano, on the bag. Skovron has hit the player jackpot with Tom Kim, whose win last week was the 20-year-old’s second in four starts.

If that stings even a little bit for Rickie, he’s not admitting it.

“Obviously miss Joe, but he's doing a good job,” Fowler said. “They got the win last week, so really cool to see for him and Tom.”