CHARLOTTE, N.C. — At the end of long day made longer by a storm delay, golfers were running between shots to try to beat dusk. That could be a worthwhile frame of mind if they want to beat Hideki Matsuyama to the trophy on Sunday.
“He’s got an extra gear,” said Ernie Els, a longtime friend who played alongside Matsuyama on Friday and watched him achieve a score that seemed unthinkable five hours earlier. The 25-year-old from Japan shot 7-under-par 64 at Quail Hollow Club and moved into a tie for first at the PGA Championship. Play was suspended because of darkness, with several golfers having to complete the second round Saturday morning.
Matsuyama shares the top spot with Kevin Kisner, whose 67 in the morning wave seemed impressive on a course that featured firm, fast greens and tough rough. Conditions appeared much more benign after heavy rains during a 1-hour, 42-minute stoppage. But the truth is, Matsuyama had gotten on a roll before the horn sounded, having made three birdies in a row.
“The weather looked good to me, but I was grateful for the rain delay because I was getting tired and I was able to lay down in the locker room and get some rest,” Matsuyama said through an interpreter.
Fact is, he has been a pace-setter this season with three victories on the PGA Tour, including the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational just last Sunday, which he capped with a 61. So, before the tournament started, he was described as “the hottest player in the game” by Jordan Spieth, who entered with the chance to become the youngest ever to complete the career Grand Slam.
Rather than make history so far, Spieth had to scramble to make the cut, finishing at 3 over. He will have a tough road to get into the race, which was propelled on Friday by a sprint (literally and figuratively) from Jason Day. The 2015 PGA Champion had reached 5 under after his first four holes before the delay and rushed to complete a 66 to reach 6 under. Francesco Molinari matched Matsuyama’s 64 to end up at 5 under.
The bottom line is, it is a completely different tournament than it had appeared to be early in the day, when Rory McIlroy (2 over) said that 67 or 68 would be an admirable score. It figures to be a frantic weekend. Possibly a historic one, too, in that no Japanese golfer ever has won a men’s major.
“I don’t know whether other players should be nervous or not, but this is my first experience, leading a major or tied for the lead after 36 holes,” Matsuyama said after his bogey-free round. “And so maybe I’ll be a little nervous but on the other hand, I’m looking forward to the weekend and seeing how I do.”
He is not the only one. Els, a four-time major winner who got to know Matsuyama in Presidents Cup competition, said: “His swing is absolutely flawless at the moment. If he keeps this up, it’s going to be very tough for guys to beat him. I know the other guys are playing very well, but he’s in good form.
“He doesn’t speak a lot of English,” Els said. “He can speak good English, but he’s not going to be comfortable yapping it up with the guys.”
That makes him much different from Kisner, who lives in Aiken, South Carolina and loves hanging out with his buddies, shooting the breeze. “They don’t ask me why I made bogey on the last hole that cost me 200 grand or anything like that,” said the former academic All-American at Georgia.
Among his peers on tour, Kisner is a fierce competitor, one who has won two PGA Tour events, including the Dean & DeLuca Invitational at Colonial Country Club this year, and who is aching to win a major.
He has smoothed over a 2016 dustup with his home course, Palmetto Country Club, which temporarily suspended him for racing around the place with buddies in golf carts. If nothing else, it shows he also has an extra gear.