Matsuyama aims to join elite company with WMPO three-peat

Hideki Matsuyama will attempt to become just the fifth player over the past four decades to win a tournament three consecutive years when he plays in this week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale.

If successful, he would join Tom Watson (Byron Nelson Classic, 1978-1980), Stuart Appleby (Mercedes Championship, 2004-06), Steve Stricker (John Deere Classic, 2009-11) and Tiger Woods, who has accomplished the feat at four different events.

He would also join Arnold Palmer (1961-63) as the only three-peat winner of this event.

The soft-spoken Japanese star might seem an unlikely candidate to embrace the often-wild atmosphere at the WMPO, where organizers anticipate more than 800,000 fans over the course of four rounds beginning on Thursday. However, Matsuyama deals with superstar status in Japan and has tamed the 7,266-yard, par-71 TPC Scottsdale, where he also tied for second in 2015 and fourth in 2014.

“I love it here,” Matsuyama said of the WMPO, via a translator. “Being able to win twice the last two years has been really memorable for me and quite an honor. I’m going to do my best this year to three-peat and if I was fortunate enough to do that, I think I would join the King, Arnold Palmer, as the only three-peat winner. That would be something.”

Matsuyama has won the past two WMPO’s on the fourth hole of playoffs, and the past three PGA Tour events have been won after lengthy playoffs. There could be another one in store this week with five of the top seven players in the world in the field and 23 of the top 30 in the FedExCup standings.

Matsuyama is feeling confident after finishing tied for 12th at last week’s Farmers Insurance Open, where his streaky putting caught fire as he finished second in strokes gained putting and closed with a 69 on Sunday.

“I don’t know if you saw the stats, but my strokes gained putting was the best it’s ever been at Torrey Pines,” Matsuyama said. “I was very proud of that, and hopefully I can keep putting well.”

Matsuyama will play the first two rounds with Webb Simpson and Rickie Fowler, with second-ranked Jon Rahm, No. 3 Jordan Spieth and No. 4 Justin Thomas among those in the strong field.

Thomas, the reigning FedExCup champion, will have coach Matt Killen caddying for him this week as Jimmy Johnson continues to recover from a foot injury. Killen and Thomas are longtime friends, and Killen was on his bag for the 2015 John Deere Classic.

“He’s known me since I was about 8 years old and kind of watched me growing up and playing a lot of golf, so he knows my game pretty well,” Thomas said.

Rahm will be playing for the third consecutive week, and the former Arizona State star is another player with a strong track record at the WMPO. He tied for fifth as an amateur in 2015 and tied for 16th last year. He acknowledged that the pressure of potentially taking over the No. 1 world ranking from Dustin Johnson last week weighed on him after he opened with rounds of 68-66. He shot 75-77 over the weekend to finish in a tie for 29th.

“I mean, there’s nothing to do but learn from it,” Rahm said. “Now, every time I go to a tournament, I know that the possibility of becoming No. 1 in the world is there.

“It’s a goal I’ve been working for over 10 years, and I’m only 23. So close to half my life, I’ve been working to get to that point.”

Rahm will play the first two rounds with 2017 rookie of the year Xander Schauffele and Phil Mickelson, another former ASU star who is looking to rebound from a tough weekend at Torrey Pines, where he went 76-74 to tie for 45th.

Being within shouting distance down the stretch on Sunday often leads to dramatic finishes at the WMPO. Matsuyama trailed by three shots entering the final round two years ago and by four strokes last year. Fowler said it is a course that lends itself to those trying to make up ground playing in front of the leaders.

“You can shoot 5, 6, 7 under on the back nine pretty quickly,” said Fowler, who tied for fourth last year. “If you get through the front nine a few under par and catch up with some guys, it’s kind of a shootout ’til the finish.”

–Field Level Media

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