Before the 2021 Zozo Championship started, Hideki Matsuyama warned fans that he did not have his best stuff and “will be struggling this week.” He said, if his game at the Masters was a 10 (he won that, by the way), it was currently less than a one. So, of course, Matsuyama went out and shot a 64 in Round 1, sitting one back of the leader at this event in his home country of Japan.Matsuyama came in as one of the favorites, and just like a post-shot routine in which you think he’s hit a ball out of bounds but it actually rolls to 11 feet, he seemingly set everybody up. He may not have been flawless by his own preposterous standards, but he’s now in position to bookend what has been a bit of a dream year — after winning the Masters in April, he contended at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in August — with a victory on home soil.It would be the seventh of his terrific PGA Tour career and the 13th overall by somebody from the country of Japan.”We play in front of a lot of fans on the PGA Tour [in the United States], but to be able to play in my home country in front of so many Japanese fans, it was a thrill,” said Matsuyama. “I’m glad I played well today.”
There’s still a long way to go, but Matsuyama is now the +250 favorite to win, according to Caesars Sportsbook, just ahead of Joaquin Niemann (+450). Both of them are chasing an unlikely Round 1 leader in Hiroshi Iwata, who shot 7-under 63 over the first 18 holes and went birdie-birdie-eagle to close out his first nine holes before taking a one-stroke lead with his performance on the back nine.Let’s dive a little deeper into his round and take a look at what is a pretty sweet leaderboard at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club.1. Hiroshi Iwata (-7): Iwata is a fixture on the Japan Golf Tour where he ranks No. 13 on the money list and has finished in the top 15 in each of his last three starts. He’s ranked No. 161 in the world so it’s not like he’s an obscurity. He’s finished in the top 10 at some good events before (WGC-HSBC Champions and the Pebble Beach Pro-Am). Still, a 40-year-old Iwata downing Xander Schauffele, Collin Morikawa and Matsuyama all in the heart of their careers would be a stunner, albeit a fun one for Iwata to become just the sixth Japanese golfer ever to win a PGA Tour event in his home country.
T2. Joaquin Niemann, Hideki Matsuyama (-6): These two combined for 12 birdies and no bogeys on Thursday, which is amazing considering there were only 28 players who broke par. Niemann pointed out the course difficulty after his round, which is meaningful as it relates to both of these players because they can both thrive on tough, ball-striker’s courses. “Yeah, this is a really hard course,” said Niemann. “I love it because it’s fun. You’ve got to hit it both ways: You’ve got to hit draw, you’ve got to hit fade, you’ve got to put the ball in the fairway. There’s some holes that … it’s really important to be in a good position. Sometimes, the rough can be really tricky, and it’s hard to control the distance from the rough. Yeah, it’s a fun course.”Niemann has been hitting the ball quite well of late, but last week he made nothing. That changed on Thursday, which is part of the reason you see him contending for this event with only Matsuyama holding shorter odds.
4. Matt Wallace (-5): Wallace led the field in birdies on Thursday with seven. His last top 10 at a PGA Tour event came in May at the Wells Fargo Championship. He finished T6 there when Rory McIlroy went on to win. Wallace is always a fun watch when he’s in the mix, and seeing him take on Matsuyama, Niemann and maybe Tommy Fleetwood or Xander Schauffele would be extremely compelling.5. Brendan Steele (-4): It’s rare to get this much separation in the top five where only two golfers are tied, but it speaks to the difficulty of the course as Niemann alluded to. Steele made five birdies and an eagle on Thursday and holed out on No. 10 (his first hole of the day). Being 2 under thru one hole is always good. He has struggled of late (five missed cuts and just one top-40 in his last 12 events), but his game seems to be coming around and he has some staying power here heading to Round 2.T6. Tommy Fleetwood (-3): Here’s an interesting stat from my friend and colleague, Rick Gehman: Fleetwood’s last top five in a stroke play event on Tour was the Honda Classic … in 2020. That was 19 months ago. He has not been very good since then, but he was solid on Thursday with two eagles to offset three bogeys and slid into that top six as a result.
T29. Rickie Fowler, Xander Schauffele (E): Schauffele had it going early on, but four bogeys in his last 10 holes undid the early work. Fowler made a triple and somehow still shot even par. This is emblematic of Fowler’s issues over the last year or so. He was 135th on the PGA Tour in bogey avoidance last season, which means he might still be scoring but all of it is coming apart because he’s putting too many big numbers on the card. Both guys are certainly still in it, and Schauffele is the fifth-shortest favorite, according to Caesars Sportsbook.T42. Collin Morikawa (+1): Morikawa was not terrible on Thursday, but four bogeys on the second nine of the course leaves him eight back. He played last weekend in 17 under to nearly steal the CJ Cup at Summit so I don’t have a lot of concern over a middling start in Japan. He should rise up the board over the next three days.