A Memorable Memorial
After the first round of the 2014 Memorial Tournament, it looked like there would be a runaway winner. Firing a course record 9-under par 63 was all of sudden red-hot, Rory McIlroy. Fresh off his storming come from behind victory in last week’s European Tour’s PGA Championship, it seemed as though the wonder kid (are you still a wonder kid at 25?) from Northern Ireland had suddenly recaptured his magical form and was about to go a tear.
Unfortunately for Rory, professional men’s golf tournaments are 4 rounds long and in the second round McIlroy cooled off like an iceberg, and recorded a 6-over par 78 that included back to back to back double bogeys. Fickle game this golf. As we have recorded before, it will always be the asterisk that comes with the brilliant Ulsterman in that he is capable of doing the impossible and following that up with the unfathomable. The reason is that he has a beautiful languid swing that is so predicated on rhythm that on occasion it becomes like a virtuoso guitar player, playing a 12-string with a broken string. Out of sorts.
The leader after the second round would be suddenly resurgent Englishman Paul Casey who has battled injuries and personal problems in the last few years, but who is gradually finding the game that at one time had him ranked as high as #3 in the world. Casey shot a matching pair of 6-under 66’s in the first two rounds to take a two shot lead over Bubba Watson.
Jack Nicklaus’s masterpiece that is Muirfield, is the type of course that can give up low scores but can also extract excruciating pain when a player makes mistakes. This is a characteristic that it shares with other classic venues like Augusta National and Pebble Beach.
In Saturday’s 3rd round, it would be Casey’s turn to retreat as he shot a 4-over par 76 to give the stage and lead to current Masters Champion, Watson, who authored a 3-under par 69 that left him one clear of the field at 12-under par entering Sunday’s final round.
Two shots behind Watson was 22 year old Japanese sensation Hideki Matsuyama who is in his Rookie year on the PGA Tour. Matsuyama is anything but a neophyte though, as he has been a leading player of the world stage for several years. After turning professional in April of last year, Matsuyama would go on to win 3 events on the Japanese Tour and become the first rookie to ever lead that Tour’s money list.
Also in the mix was new World #1, Adam Scott, the winner at last week’s PGA Tour event at Colonial who was lurking only 3 shots behind Watson and hungry to become a winner again, further cementing his status as the best player in the game.
An 8-under par, 64, by 32 year old Kevin Na would make him the leader in the clubhouse at 13-under par as the leading trio of Scott, Matsuyama and Watson made the turn, all tied for the lead at 14-under par. A double bogey by Scott on the par-3 12th, followed by a trio of bogies at #’s 14-16 would eliminate the Australian whose usually flawless swing was unusually flawed.
Matsuyama became the leader at 15-under par after birdieing the par 5, 15th hole before leaving his tee shot short and finding the water on the par-3, 16th. An ensuing bogey on the 17th would mean that Matsuyama would need to make a birdie-3 on the last hole just to tie Kevin Na.
Meanwhile, Watson was having a meltdown of his own when he hit his 2nd shot to the 15th, 50 yards to the right. Right into someone’s backyard and out of bounds giving him a double bogey-7 and also one stroke behind Na who now lead the tournament all by himself.
Na, who was born in South Korea but emigrated to the United Sates when he was 8, first turned professional when he was 17 years old in 2001. He won an Asian Tour event in 2002, but remained a journeyman player before breaking through to win his first PGA Tour event in the 2011 Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas. Since then, Na has fought with inner demons that on occasion made him take as many as 15 practice waggles before actually hitting a shot. To his credit, Na has been very forthright in addressing his idiosyncrasy and he has definitely improved his pace of play in the last few months.
Matsuyama made a bridie-3 at the 18th hole in each of his first 3 rounds. He became the first player in the history of the Memorial to make birdie there in all 4 rounds after he hit a glorious approach from 178 yards out to within 5 feet of the hole and then calmly made the putt to put him in a play-off with Na.
The first play-off hole on #18 was played much in the same vein in which so many players had capitulated during the back-9. Na hit his tee shot left, into a lateral hazard and then played his third shot into the heavy rough to the right of the green. Matsuyama hit his tee shot into the fairway bunker and followed that shot up with a big pull shot that landed in an impossible position to the left of the 18th green. From there he played a delicate flop shot over the greenside bunker to within 10 feet of the cup. Matsuyama made the putt to claim his first victory on the PGA Tour. It will be the first of many and to make his maiden triumph at “Jack’s Place”; made it a memorable, Memorial.