NASSAU, Bahamas: Hideki Matsuyama captured his fourth title in the past two months Sunday by holding off reigning British Open champion Henrik Stenson to win the Hero World Challenge by two strokes.
The 24-year-old Japanese star served notice that he will be a contender to become his homeland’s first male major golf champion by taking the 18-man invitational event hosted by 14-time major winner Tiger Woods.
“He’s going to be one of the top guys to beat for a very long time,” said Woods, who made his comeback this week from a 16-month back injury layoff.
Sixth-ranked Matsuyama finished on 18-under par 270 after a closing one-over par 73 while Sweden’s fourth-ranked Stenson, who trimmed an eight-shot deficit to two, shot 68 to stand on 16-under 272.
“I think he’ll be a major champion within the next couple years,” said fifth-ranked Jordan Spieth of the United States, who followed a 2014 Challenge title with 2015 Masters and US Open triumphs.
Matsuyama won at the Japan Open and World Golf Championships HSBC Champions in October, settling for a runner-up spot in Malaysia in between, and won last month at the Taiheiyo Masters in Japan.
After adding the Challenge trophy, could a historic major be next for Matsuyama?
“That’s my goal and one of the things I’ll be working hard to accomplish,” Matsuyama said.
Matsuyama has five top-10 efforts in 17 major starts, including a career-best fourth at this year’s PGA Championship. He was fifth in last year’s Masters and shared seventh this past April at Augusta National.
“Starting next week, all my focus and preparation will be for the Masters,” he said. “Hopefully along the way I can play well on the PGA Tour, but my next goal is the Masters.”
Stenson sank a six-foot birdie putt at the 16th to pull within two and both parred the 17th. At 18, Matsuyama found the right rough and went over the green with his approach while Stenson gave himself a 10-foot birdie chance.
Matsuyama responded by chipping within inches of the cup. Stenson lipped out on his birdie putt and both closed with pars to give the Asian star the $1 million top prize at the $3.5 million event.
“It’s going to give him a boatload of confidence going into next year,” said Woods, who finished 15th. “Look at his swing, look at his game and look at the body that he has — it’s built for a workload and it’s built to handle the test of time. He’s going to be one of the players that we’re going to have to beat for a long time.”
US Open champion Dustin Johnson and fellow Americans Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler shared third on 275, two strokes ahead of US trio Bubba Watson, Brandt Snedeker and Spieth.
“He’s on an awesome run,” Spieth said of Matsuyama. “It’s hard to call it a run when it just means that somebody’s got the game clicking. You can’t really call it a run because even when he doesn’t play that well, he still plays well. He has all the keys.”
Matsuyama credits his hot streak to improved putting.
“When I putt well, I can contend,” Matsuyama said. “These last five events, I’ve been able to make some putts and the more putts you make the bigger the hole gets and the confidence grows and that has played a big part in it.”
Only 100 wins to go
Matusyama, now with 13 pro wins, says there are a lot of better players worldwide, including at least one from Japan, Hall of Famer Jumbo Ozaki, who won 113 titles worldwide.
“I’m not the greatest golfer from Japan,” he said. “Jumbo won 100 times. So unless I win 100 times, I wouldn’t be greater than Jumbo.”
But Matsuyama hopes his current success can inspire Asian golfers to raise their game on the global stage.
“There are a lot of great players in Asia and hopefully through my success a lot more of them will now try to come to the United States and play on the PGA Tour,” Matsuyama said. “Hopefully that will increase the popularity and level of Asian golf.