Five shots behind at the turn, Hideki Matsuyama figured all he could do was keep his head down and try to stay in the game Sunday in the Sony Open.
And when he finally looked up, he couldn’t see one of the best shots of his career.
In a sudden-death playoff with Russell Henley, Matsuyama hit a 3-wood from 276 yards, right into the sun, and had no idea that it settled 3 feet away for eagle on the par-5 18th until he heard an enormous cheer from one of the largest galleries at Waialae.
“To be honest, I didn’t even see it,” Matsuyama said. “But everybody started cheering, and I knew it was good.”
Matsuyama, who made birdie on the 18th in regulation for a 7-under 63, won for the eighth time on the PGA Tour, tying him with K.J. Choi for most tour victories by an Asian-born player.
For the Masters champion, this was the most unlikely.
Henley closed out the front nine with five one-putts in a row, starting with a par save, three straight birdies and a 3-foot eagle to build a five-shot lead.
He never made another birdie the rest of the way. Henley’s biggest moments on the back nine were a pair of tough par saves, and he had a 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th in regulation to win. It caught the right edge of the cup, and he had to settle for a 65.
“A little bit sloppy on the back nine but made the par saves I needed to make to put pressure on Hideki. He just played incredible golf today,” Henley said. “I wish I could have put some more pressure on him. Tough to beat 3-wood to 2 feet on 18.”
Matsuyama, who nearly swung out of his shoes with driver on the 18th in regulation knowing he might need eagle, went with 3-wood in the playoff because Henley already was in a fairway bunker and would not be able to reach.
That left Matsuyama with another 3-wood, a perfect number for his high fade with a little breeze working from left-to-right off the Pacific Ocean.
He immediately held up his hand to shield the sun and never could find the ball. The roar told him all he needed to know.
Henley, after having to lay up out of the sand, sent his lob wedge from 85 yards bounding over the green and he made bogey. By then, it didn’t matter.
Matsuyama tapped in his eagle putt for his second win this season on the PGA Tour. Both times, he finished with an eagle, only he needed this shot. His eagle at the Zozo Championship in Japan gave him a five-shot victory.
Matsuyama knew his Sony Open history. It was where Isao Aoki became the first Japanese player to win on the PGA Tour in 1983 when he holed out from the fairway for eagle.
“To follow him up, I’m over the moon,” Matsuyama said.
They finished at 23-under 257. Matsuyama had his 13th consecutive round in the 60s dating to the final day at the CJ Cup at Summit in Las Vegas.
Kevin Kisner (64) and Seamus Power of Ireland (65) tied for third, four shots behind.
This was a two-man race all along, even if it looked to be a runaway at the turn.
Matsuyama made a pair of early birdies to get within one shot, and he had a big gallery by Honolulu standards, many of them yelling, “Sugoi!” after his two birdies — Japanese for “great.”
Henley held his nerve. He kept the lead by making a 10-foot par putt after going well long on at No. 5. That appeared to free him, for Henley went on a tear from there — a tap-in birdie, an 8-foot birdie, a 3-foot birdie and then an approach to 3 feet for eagle on the par-5 ninth.
Matsuyama three-putted for par and suddenly was five shots behind.
“Russell was playing so beautifully the front nine, but at the turn I was thinking, ‘He can’t keep this up, can he?’” Matsuyama said through his interpreter.
Matsuyama started the back nine with a birdie, and then a two-shot swing followed on the par-3 11th when Henley went left into a bunker for bogey and Matsuyama holed a 12-foot par.
Henley saved two big pars, including an 8-footer on No. 13, and Matsuyama shaved another shot off the lead with a 20-foot birdie on the 15th.
That set up the big finish.
Henley’s looked closely at Matsuyama’s long putt that rolled near his marker and saw it turn left. His 10-foot birdie putt did not, and Matsuyama left him no chance in the playoff.
It was the fifth time Henley had at least a share of the 54-hole lead and failed to convert dating to his first win to start his rookie season at the Sony Open in 2013.
“It stings. I played some great golf,” Henley said. “I feel like I was in it the entire time mentally this time. I didn’t have too many mental lapses like I have other tournaments where I’ve been close to the lead in the last couple years. So feel like I was there. Just got to keep chugging.”