It was arguably the greatest round in history that no one remembers. Or at least the best one that didn’t count.
When Hideki Matsuyama rolled in a 25-foot eagle putt on the par-5 ninth—his final hole of the day—last March at TPC Sawgrass, he matched the course record with a spectacular nine-under 63, becoming the ninth golfer in Players Championship history to card that number.
Less than 12 hours later, it was officially wiped out.
Just after 10 that evening, the Players and the three tournaments scheduled for the following weeks were cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The announcement came a day after the NBA suspended its season, the NCAA cancelled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and as cases of coronavirus had begun to take what would be a deadly grip on the country and the world.
Soon after, the PGA Tour paused its season for three months.
Before any of that, however, the week started out mostly business as usual in Ponte Vedra Beach, at least in the public eye. Two days before the tournament was canceled, there was a Chainsmokers concert at TPC Sawgrass, where a few thousand fans gathered around the 17th hole. The pandemic was fast becoming the biggest story on the planet, but Thursday morning, spectators were still allowed to attend the opening round.
Matsuyama, meanwhile, had started his day brilliantly.
Teeing off alongside Patrick Cantlay and Patrick Reed at 8:24 a.m. on the par-4 10th—temperatures were in the mid 60s, with little-to-no-wind and a touch of humidity in the air—the Japanese star stuck his approach shot to eight feet and made the putt for an opening birdie.
Then three more followed—a nine-footer on the par-5 11th; a two-putt after driving the 302-yard 12th; and a 14-footer on the 181-yard 13th. Four holes, four under, just like that.
Surprisingly, though, Matsuyama’s second shot on the par-5 16th found the water. Bogey.
It would be his only blemish of the day.
Hideki Matsuyama lines up a putt on the 10th hole during the first round of the Players Championship.
Matsuyama added four more birdies, on the par-5 second as well as on Nos. 5 through 7, before reaching the ninth in two and sinking the long eagle putt. By the time play was over, he’d gained more than four strokes on the greens on the field. He took just 25 putts, making nearly 112 feet worth of them, led the field in strokes gained/putting and didn’t miss a single putt from inside 15 feet.
Coming into the week, Matsuyama ranked 198th in SG/putting. At least some of his success that day could perhaps be explained by his decision to change to a different model Scotty Cameron by Titleist putter at TPC.
Matsuyama’s play was also a dramatic turnaround from the week before. At Bay Hill, he shot 80-77 on the weekend—albeit in difficult conditions—to plummet down the leader board, finishing in a tie for 56th. When he arrived for the opening round of the Players, he didn’t exactly see things playing out the way they did.
“I didn’t have the greatest warm-up this morning, but once play started I got into it, I got into a good groove,” said Matsuyama, who, once as high as No. 2 in the world, hasn’t won on tour since 2017. “Last week was a tough week at Bay Hill, but today I made some putts and that seems to be the difference of late and that was really the catapult to me having a good round today.”
He wasn’t the only one.
Cantlay opened with a 67, while Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Harris English, Si Woo Kim were all tied for second, just two back of Matsuyama.
“He played great,” Cantlay said of his playing partner. “It was actually sneaky hard out there. I got so many mud balls that it was darn near a complete guessing game four or five times from the middle of the fairway.”
The third member of their group, meanwhile, made headlines for a different reason. As Reed was walking between holes, a fan asked him if he could sign his shovel, a jab at Reed’s rules controversy in the Bahamas that was still lingering from the previous December. The fan was removed by security, while Reed shot one over for the day.
As for Matsuyama, his hot start seemed a good omen. Of the nine players who’d shot 63 at TPC Sawgrass, five of them did so in the opening round. Three of the previous four—Greg Norman in 1994, Martin Kaymer in 2014 and Jason Day in 2016—went on to win the tournament.
By that afternoon, however, things had started to shift. Quickly. The tour, in response to the escalating pandemic, announced at noon that fans would not be allowed on site for the tournament’s remaining three rounds. Matsuyama was still on the course when the decision had been made. Afterwards, he was asked about the prospect of suddenly playing to an empty stadium.
“It will be strange tomorrow,” he said. “I think all of us will have to go back to our college days to play without a gallery. But with that said, I know there's a lot of people watching television and a lot of fans rooting for us and so I'll do my best.”
A year later, he’ll finally get that chance, and in front of fans again, too.