Hideki Matsuyama, an hour or so after one of his early rounds at last week’s Sony Open, was on the practice green at Waialae Country Club, and he was rolling putt after putt after putt from about 6 feet away. Behind the hole was his caddie, Shota Hayafuji, who collected the balls as they came, then tossed them back to his boss. And the process began again. Putt after putt after putt.
By now, if you’ve seen or heard Sunday’s result, you can probably guess the moral to this story pretty easily. Matsuyama, after he dropped a 3-wood from 270 out to within 2 feet on the first playoff hole, won the Sony, and along the way, he made, yes, putts. Practice makes perfect, right? You bet. But the after-hours session wasn’t so much to sharpen as it was to erase.
Consider: From 2014, Matsuyama’s first full year as a pro, to before the Sony, he’s finished no better than 78th in Strokes Gained: Putting; last year, he was 175th; before last week, he was 205th. Put another way, he was hitting putt after putt after putt, too. Then came this week, where, for the first time in his career, Matsuyama led a tournament in the putting metric, with 7.264 strokes gained on the field.
The difference? According to former player and longtime Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, Matsuyama channeled his fellow Japanese countryman, Isao Aoki, a Hall of Famer, multiple-time winner around the world — and one of the best putters of his generation.
“If you remember Isao Aoki’s putting stroke — and he was one of the greatest putters of all-time — he had his hands real low and the toe of the putter in the air. Almost Seve-esque,” Chamblee said on Golf Channel’s Golf Central on Sunday night. “And so when you start to look at the difference between Hideki Matsuyama formerly when he really, really has struggled on the greens, and what he was doing this week, when he set up, his putter was not level with the ground. Not at all. The toe was in the air. And it was really a throwback to Isao Aoki. …
“That toe, you would not go for a putter fitting and leave with a putter that fit you like that. That is something that a player decides to do on their own. And by lowering your hands like that, because if you raise your hands, you’ll kind of take the wrists out of it, but if you lower your hands like that … you’re going to be able to set your wrists much earlier. You’re going to have some play in your wrists. If you raise them, you get this arch in your wrists and you’re not going to have as much hand movement. You lower them, it’s much easier to get it going like Isao Aoki. …
“It allowed him to get a little bit more play in his wrists and is a completely different putter from last week to this week.”
The week before, at the Tournament of Champions, which Matsuyama had gained access to thanks to his victories at last year’s Masters and the Zozo Championship in Japan, he finished 27th in the 38-man field in SG: Putting. After Saturday’s third round at the Sony, Matsuyama, one of the more reserved players on Tour, simply called the difference “lucky.”
That very well may be true, too. But his putting adjustment was more than just crossing his fingers on the club.
“There’s a lot of ways to get it done. But if you’re struggling — look when you’re 205th in Strokes Gained: Putting, it’s time to change because clearly what you’re doing is not working,” Chamblee said on Golf Central. “So this was a brilliant change and this is the best week we’ve ever seen him.
“He did not win this week because he ball-striked everyone into oblivion. He won this week because he had the best putting week of his life.”