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Hideki Matsuyama Struggles in ZOZO Championship's First Round and is Seven Strokes off the Pace

The defending champion will need a strong round to get back into contention as he bids to become the first two-time winner of the tournament.

Hideki Matsuyama tees off on the 11th hole at the ZOZO Championship at the Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture, on October 13. (KYODO)

INZAI, Chiba Pref. ― Defending champion Hideki Matsuyama couldn't find his rhythm and shot a 1-over-par 71 on Thursday, October 13 to finish seven strokes back of leader Brendan Steele after the first round of the PGA Tour's ZOZO Championship.

Steele finished with four consecutive birdies at the Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club for a 64 and a one-stroke lead over fellow American Adam Schenk. 

Sam Ryder, also of the United States, shot a 66 and was tied for third with compatriots Matthew NeSmith and Keegan Bradley.

"Everybody says if you birdie 18, dinner tastes better," Steele said. "But four in a row is definitely really nice and feels good."

Japan's Kazuki Higa fired a 67 and was in a group of golfers tied for sixth that included Americans Rickie Fowler and Tokyo 2020 Olympic gold medalist Xander Schauffele.

Teeing off on the back nine, Matsuyama had his first bogey of the day on the par-4 No. 11. He recovered nicely with a long birdie putt on 13 but another bogey on the par-4 17th was a further setback.

He matched par with his second birdie of the day on the par-3 No. 3 but a third bogey on the very next hole made a charge up the leaderboard difficult.

"It was raining and it was a tough round. I didn't give a good account of myself today," Matsuyama was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse.

"I was able to get some good rest last night and I was feeling better physically, so it's a shame that I couldn't get a good score today."

Aiming to Repeat

Matsuyama won the 2021 ZOZO Championship by five strokes. He was second in 2019 when Tiger Woods won his record-tying 82nd PGA Tour title at Narashino.

Matsuyama, the 2021 Masters champion, is aiming to add to his eight PGA Tour titles but will need to come up with a big round to get back into contention. He is currently tied for 41st.

He won the 2021 ZOZO Championship in dramatic fashion.

He started the final round with a one-shot lead but carded three birdies and two eagles ― including one on the final hole ― to move away from the pack and win by five strokes.

Thursday was the first time Matsuyama shot over 68 at the ZOZO Championship when it was held in Japan. The 2020 tournament was held at Sherwood Country Club in California due to travel restrictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nakajima Cards an Even-Par 70

Keita Nakajima, a former World No. 1 amateur, is making his PGA Tour debut in this tournament. He finished tied for 29th after a 70.

Nakajima, 22, turned pro last month and was awarded a sponsor exemption to compete in this tournament. 

South Korean golfer Tom Kim also shot a 70 that included back-to-back birdies on Nos. 13 and 14.

Kim recently earned two PGA victories before the age of 21 ― a feat that was last accomplished 26 years ago by Tiger Woods.

Kim won the Shriners Children's Classic on Sunday to give him his second PGA Tour win at 20 years and three months old, half a year younger than Woods was when he achieved the same feat at the Walt Disney World Golf Classic.

The ZOZO Championship is the only PGA Tour event in Japan and has a purse of $11 million USD (¥1.6 billion JPY). There are no COVID-19 crowd-limit restrictions in place this year.

Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles here.

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