At Riviera, Hideki Matsuyama’s controversial finish looked different

hideki matsuyama tips cap at genesis invitational

Hideki Matsuyama's Genesis Invitational victory gave him the most PGA Tour wins of any Asian-born player ever.

GOLF/Darren Riehl

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — By the time Hideki Matsuyama found his ball tucked into the backside rough of Riviera’s 17th green, the gallery’s biggest concern was that they were wasting their time.

“It’s done,” Matsuyama’s twentysomething standard bearer said, black Genesis Invitational bib flapping in the breeze and an index finger extended disappointedly in Hideki’s direction. “He’s going deep … but not deep enough.”

What the kid didn’t know, what he couldn’t know, was that the wheels were falling off behind them. Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, the day’s final pairing, were both limping their way through the final round. Will Zalatoris, who’d surged briefly into the lead, had just made a back-breaking bogey on the 15th. From his perch on the L-Shaped 17th green, Matsuyama faced a relatively benign up and down to go up by three strokes, more or less clinching a victory.

The tournament wasn’t over on the 17th. Hell, it was only getting started.

Matsuyama slowly grinded over that chip, a delicate downhill shot on a cement-like green. Too much touch and he risked leaving himself a lengthy birdie putt; too little and he might well roll it into the greenside bunker.

Time and time again in these moments, we’ve learned that Matsuyama has a gift for deception. He will grimace and his body will contort and his club will fall to the earth, but his ball will always go precisely where it needs to. Matsuyama is funny in that way: Unflappable in every moment except for the ones he needs it most. To watch him from Thursday afternoon to Sunday afternoon is to feel as if you’ve been transported from autopilot to the Autobahn — his quiet steadiness melting into fast-and-loose white-knuckling. The irony is that his game always seems to get better in these circumstances, even if his body would indicate the opposite.

Finally, on the 17th, he plunged his wedge into the turf — a movement that would later be scrutinized — lowering the club toward his ball with three or four different wrist snaps. As he did so, a CBS camera zoomed in on Matsuyama’s ball appeared to show it tilt ever so slightly, rocking back into its original place by the time he made contact. On the green, the 200 or so of us watching were mostly holding our breath as we watched Matsuyama’s ball pop into the air and skitter a long way out onto the green, stopping a few feet before the hole for a very makeable birdie. It’d been a gorgeous shot, and completely unbeknownst to us, it’d also set the internet on fire.

It took only a few moments before the first commenters wondered if Matsuyama’s wrist snap had caused his ball to move, in turn violating rule 9.4b of the Rules of Golf and triggering a one-shot penalty. The camera shot appeared to show Matsuyama’s ball oscillating, but not quite rotating.

Back on the course, though, Matsuyama poured in the four-footer for birdie. He was nine under for the day, on pace to shoot a ridiculous 62, and now he was three shots clear of the field. He piped his drive on the 18th but recoiled as he made contact, one-arming the club around his torso with the cramped regret one feels after they’ve eaten too much cheese. The ball fell gracefully into the 18th fairway on a line so perfect you couldn’t have dropped it in a better position.

As he walked out to the 18th fairway, Tour rules official Mark Dusbabek popped onto the CBS broadcast to offer an official ruling: There was no penalty on the 17th; Matsuyama was in the clear.

“The ball did not move,” he said. “It shifted a little bit, but it stayed in the same position. The ball has to move into a different position — whether up, down or to the side — it doesn’t matter. The ball just didn’t move.”

Asked later if he’d witnessed anything afoot on the 17th, Matsuyama looked puzzled.

“I just noticed that now,” he said through a translator. “So no issue.”

Hideki Matsuyama hits shot and grimaces
A view of Hideki Matsuyama in the split-second following an absolutely perfect drive. Darren Riehl/GOLF

Matsuyama’s flow state was evident to even the least informed observer from off the side of the 72nd fairway, his X (skill) and Y (effort) axes fully attuned. He looked in perfect comfort right up until the moment he made contact, his flagrantly overindulgent club drops and pained expressions apparently the result of shots that flew one or two feet off their desired line. He made no bogeys and six birdies in a back-nine 30 to close out the tournament.

“Majority of the time when I rate my round, it’s usually my ball-striking,” he admitted with a grin post-round. “Today [a nine-under 62] was an OK round, but I chipped and putted pretty well today, so that’s something that gives me a good momentum.”

Matsuyama kept his head down for the last of those back nine holes, but when he finally rolled in a four-footer for par to close the tournament, he could hold in the emotion no longer. He unleashed an unusually demonstrative fist-pump from the 18th, and wrangled caddie Shota Hayafuji in a belly hug. We wouldn’t know it for certain until a few minutes later, but the excitement was well-earned: Matsuyama had just won his ninth PGA Tour event, passing K.J. Choi for the most ever for an Asian-born player, and he’d done it from the venue with the most vibrant Southeast Asian presence on the PGA Tour.

As he stumbled off the 18th green at Riviera, the gallery of a few thousand ringing the 18th rose to their feet, and Matsuyama extended his arm in a lengthy cap tip. It was the biggest ovation of the week by a very wide margin for either player or crowd, a moment of pure and unbridled appreciation. And then it was quiet again, Matsuyama’s composure quieting at almost the same pace as the crowd.

The biggest moment of this Genesis Invitational was over, and this time nobody seemed upset — not even Hideki.

James Colgan Editor

James Colgan is a news and features editor at GOLF, writing stories for the website and magazine. He manages the Hot Mic, GOLF’s media vertical, and utilizes his on-camera experience across the brand’s platforms. Prior to joining GOLF, James graduated from Syracuse University, during which time he was a caddie scholarship recipient (and astute looper) on Long Island, where he is from. He can be reached at