At Riviera, Hideki Matsuyama’s controversial finish looked different

Hideki Matsuyama’s oscillating ball at the Genesis Invitational set the golf world ablaze. But it looked much different from up close.

The post At Riviera, Hideki Matsuyama’s controversial finish looked different appeared first on Golf.

Hideki Matsuyama’s oscillating ball at the Genesis Invitational set the golf world ablaze. But it looked much different from up close.

The post At Riviera, Hideki Matsuyama’s controversial finish looked different appeared first on Golf.

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — By the time Hideki Matsuyama found his ball tucked into the backside rough of Riviera’s 17th green, the gallery’s biggest concern was that they’d already missed the moment of the tournament.

“It’s done,” Matsuyama’s twentysomething standard bearer said, an index finger extended disappointedly in Hideki’s direction. “He’s going deep … but not deep enough.”

What the kid didn’t know, what he couldn’t know, was that the wheels were falling off behind him. Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, the day’s final pairing, were both limping their way through the final round. Will Zalatoris, who’d surged briefly into the lead, had just made a back-breaking bogey on the 15th. From his perch on the L-Shaped 17th green, Matsuyama faced a relatively benign up and down to go up by three strokes, more or less clinching a victory.

The tournament wasn’t over on the 17th. Hell, it was only getting started.

Matsuyama slowly grinded over that chip, a delicate shot trickling downhill on a green rolling like it was made of ice. Too much touch and he risked leaving himself a lengthy birdie putt; too little and he might well roll it into the greenside bunker.

Time and time again in these moments, we’ve learned that Matsuyama has a gift for deception. He will grimace and his body will contort and his club will fall to the earth, but his ball will always go precisely where it needs to. Matsuyama is funny in that way: unflappable in every moment of his life except the ones he needs it most. To watch him from Thursday afternoon to Sunday afternoon is to feel as if you’ve been transported from autopilot to the Autobahn. The irony, though, is that he might be even better at speed racing.

Finally, on the 17th, he plunged his wedge into the turf — a movement that would quickly tilt into infamy — lowering the club toward his ball with three or four different wrist snaps. As he did so, a CBS camera zoomed to maximum focal length appeared to show Matsuyama’s ball tilt ever so slightly, rocking back into its original place by the time he made contact. On the green, the 200 or so of us watching were mostly holding our breath as we watched Matsuyama’s ball pop into the air and skitter a long way out onto the green, stopping a few feet before the hole for a very makeable birdie. It’d been a gorgeous shot, and completely unbeknownst to us, it’d also set the internet on fire.

It took only a few moments before the first commenters wondered if Matsuyama’s wrist snap had caused his ball to move, in turn violating rule 9.4b of the Rules of Golf and triggering a one-shot penalty. The camera shot appeared to show Matsuyama’s ball oscillating, but not quite rotating.

Back on the course, though, Matsuyama poured in the four-footer for birdie. He was nine under for the day, on pace to shoot a ridiculous 62, and now he was three shots clear of the field. He piped a drive into the 18th fairway so perfect you couldn’t have dropped a ball in a better position.

As he walked out to the 18th fairway, Tour rules official Mark Dusbabek popped onto the CBS broadcast to offer an official ruling: Matsuyama had deceived us again. There was no penalty; he was in the clear.

“The ball did not move,” he said. “It shifted a little bit, but it stayed in the same position. The ball has to move into a different position — whether up, down or to the side — it doesn’t matter. The ball just didn’t move.”

Asked later if he’d witnessed anything afoot on the 17th, Matsuyama looked puzzled.

“I just noticed that now,” he said through a translator. “So no issue.”

The single-minded focus was evident to even the least informed observer from off the side of the 72nd fairway, who watched Matsuyama’s game appear to be at the very highest point of his X and Y-axes. He looked in perfect comfort right up until the moment he made contact, his flagrantly overindulgent club drops and pained expressions apparently the result of shots that flew one or two feet off their desired line. He made no bogeys and six birdies in a back-nine 30 to close out the tournament.

“Majority of the time when I rate my round, it’s usually my ball-striking,” he admitted with a grin post-round. “Today [a nine-under 62] was an OK round, but I chipped and putted pretty well today, so that’s something that gives me a good momentum.”

Matsuyama kept his head down for the last of those back nine holes, but when he finally rolled in a four-footer for par to close the tournament, he could hold in the emotion no longer. He unleashed an unusually demonstrative fist-pump from the 18th, and wrangled caddie Shota Hayafuji in a belly hug. We wouldn’t know it for certain until a few minutes later, but the excitement was well-earned: Matsuyama had just won his ninth PGA Tour event, passing K.J. Choi for the most ever for a player of Asian descent, and he’d done it from the venue with the most vibrant Southeast Asian crowd on the PGA Tour.

As he stumbled off the 18th green at Riviera, the gallery of a few thousand ringing the 18th rose to their feet, and Matsuyama extended his arm in a lengthy cap tip. It was the biggest ovation of the week by a very wide margin for either player or crowd. And then it was quiet again, Matsuyama’s composure cresting at almost the same pace as the crowd.

The moment of the tournament was over, but this time nobody seemed upset — not even Matsuyama.

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