One might have glanced at the calendar early Sunday afternoon and questioned whether it was June or July. Fireworks were exploding all over the Muirfield Village course as a mixture of young and old club-slingers exchanged birdie barrages all day. Kevin Na owned the clubhouse lead at 4 p.m. on 13-under par, courtesy of an eight-birdie round of 64. Na was something of an afterthought, however, as a slew of challengers was following his lead and lighting off its share of roman candles.
Adam Scott was 5-under on the day through 11 holes and 14-under overall. Bubba Watson, the third-round leader, had countered a solitary bogey with four birdies and stood at 3-under on the day, 15-under through thirteen holes on Sunday. And young Hideki Matsuyama boasted 6-under and 15-under totals for day and the tournament, respectively.
Then a cold front came in from somewhere. Scott went double-birdie-bogey-bogey-bogey on holes No. 12 through 16, highlighted by a Tiger Woods-esque wedge to the par-five 15th that clanged off the flagstick and off the green, leading to a bogey. Watson made bogey-double bogey on Nos. 14 and 15, and Matsuyama offset birdies on Nos. 13 and 15 with bogeys on Nos. 14 and 17, as well as a double bogey on No. 16. Suddenly, Kevin Na had a one-stroke lead to himself. To make matters worse, Matsuyama took his driver out of play with a ground-spanking on the 72nd tee, separating the head and shaft. He would be be one club down should a playoff ensue, but Matsuyama first needed to birdie the 18th.
And birdie it he did. The 22-year old staked an 8-iron to five feet from the right side of the fairway and made the putt to join Na at 13-under.
“At the 18th, I hit my tee shot in the fairway, what I had to do,” Matsuyama said. “And the second shot … I knew I had to make birdie, so I took dead aim for the pin. The wind was coming from the right, so I just hit it up, just my normal shot, let the wind take it a little bit. And I didn’t know it was that close until actually I got up onto the green.”
Only Bubba Watson could join Matsuyama and Na in the playoff, but he would also need birdie to do so. When his last-ditch attempt to tie the youngsters failed, the 2014 Masters champion was left to wonder “what if…” with a shocked look on his demoralized face. For a fellow who has won twice this spring, he still felt a bit snake-bit by the golfing gods:
“It’s tough,” Watson said. “I made one bad decision. If I hit the 4-wood off the tee instead of the driver on the par 5, we make five and we win by one. But I made a double, so we lost by one. It wasn’t too bad. Swing was there. Ability was there. I tried on the last few holes. I always try to fit driver on [No. 17], try to dink it. I hit it in the bunker, but still hit the 9-iron in there; had a chance for birdie. [No. 18]. I hit a good 5 iron in there that landed right next to the pin, and obviously just stayed up in the rough there. “
Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters Champion and currently on the longest run of solid golf of his life, took a more stoic view of his misfortune on the par-five 15th.
“Yeah, that’s a big swing there,” Scott said. “I mean, likelihood is the wedge finishes pretty close, especially with a backstop behind the hole. It’s going to be inside the circle that you like to be in, and then I’m right there with three to go. But left myself in a spot down the front of the green. It’s very hard to get it up and down. And the grass is so tight down there and there’s no margin for error on the chip. And I just missed the slope to come back to the hole a little bit. It’s the way it goes. You get lucky breaks and you get bad ones.”
Off they went to the 18th tee, Na and Matsuyama, locked in a playoff duel for the 2014 Memorial Tournament title. Matsuyama chose not to replace his driver with his backup, and slapped his 3 wood into the nest of bunkers that guards the inside of the dogleg. Na, who had not hit a shot on-course for over two hours, pull-hooked a driver into the creek that runs through the rough left of the fairway.
Na went first, going to the opposite bank of the creek for his drop, then leaving his 5 wood out to the right in the thick rough to the side of the green. Matsuyama, seemingly in the driver’s seat, elected to go for the green from the bunker with 4 iron and over-cooked it into the gallery left of the putting surface. After each recovered to the putting surface, Matsuyama had a putt for par to win the title outright. His curling, right-to-left effort never wavered as it moved to the bottom of the hole. Matsuyama made his first victory on the PGA Tour a special one, winning Jack Nicklaus’ own Memorial Tournament.
In defeat, Na was both gracious and sincere.
“My miss is right,” Na said. “So I was trying to stay in the shot and actually overcompensated if anything and pulled it. And I was looking pretty good up there for a bogey, and obviously he deserved it with that great putt he made. I was hoping I could get an extra hole in, but he hit an unbelievable putt. That was not an easy downhill slope putt. So he deserved it.”
As for the tournament host, Mr. Jack Nicklaus was again impressed by what he saw in Matsuyama.
“I think his size is larger than most of your Japanese players, Nicklaus said. “He has the ability to be able to play golf courses well within himself and doesn’t have to push for distance and strength. So his tempo is so good and … he’s very calm. When he knocked the ball in the water at [No. 16] today, you just saw him bear down and try to play a better shot. I thought that showed a lot about him. And I just think you’ve just seen the start of what’s going to be truly one of your world’s great players over the next 10 to 15 years.”