On a day disrupted by storms, it was the divine wind blowing Hideki Matsuyama that had the field running for cover. Just as he did a week ago to claim victory at the WGC-Bridgestone with a course record, Matsuyama hit the turbo button, shooting a second round 64 to share the PGA Championship lead on eight under par.
The pre-tournament script was all about Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy duelling for hegemony at the final major of the season. While both continued to labour around the reconfigured Quail Hollow, shooting 73 and 72 to fall 11 and ten shots off the lead respectively, Matsuyama brought moving day forward 24 hours.
A disruption of one hour and 40 minutes late in the afternoon left a swathe of golfers still to complete their second rounds. But there was no stopping the Japanese force of nature, whose burst of four consecutive birdies on the back nine catapulted him to the top of the leaderboard, two shots clear alongside unsung Kevin Kisner.
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His display was all the more impressive since only 17 players finished under par. And the worry for the rest of the field must be that he has yet to find the gear that took him to three victories at the end of 2016. “I'm probably not playing as well as I did at the end of last year. However, I'm riding the momentum from the round that I had on Sunday. Hopefully, I can keep that going for 36 more holes.”
Matsuyama and Kisner, who carded a second successive 67 among the morning starters, are stalked by a resurgent Jason Day. The Australian clearly has an affinity with this championship, carding two top tens before winning it two years ago and finishing second last term. His 66 was bettered only by Matsuyama and Francesco Molinari, who also astonished with a 64 to close three back.
Spieth, like McIlroy in the morning, could not get anything going. Indeed he was fortunate not to disappear further down the shute after finding trouble at the par-5 tenth. Just as he did at Birkdale’s 13th hole during his last round at the Open, Spieth carved one to the right. Hitting off pine needles the best he could do was hack it into the trees on the other side of the fairway.
Once again off the pine needles he caught a branch with his third, advancing his ball barely 50 metres. Incredibly he reprised his Birkdale damage limitation exercise by limiting the damage to a bogey. “I kind of accept the fact that I'm essentially out of this tournament pending some form of crazy stuff the next couple of days,” Spieth said. “I'm sure going to give it a try.”
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Ditto McIlroy, who required two birdies in his closing three holes to maintain respectability. Before that he ran up four bogeys in five holes on his back nine, missing par putts from inside ten feet each time.
Both Spieth and McIlroy have struggled to get the measure of the rapid, rock hard greens. Yet McIlroy’s problem yesterday was rooted not in the flat stick but his driver, which for once failed him.
The problems began from the off. Starting at the par-5 tenth McIlroy missed the fairway to the right and was even further out of position with his second, forcing an escape via a kart path, bouncing his ball along the asphalt to the edge of the green, from where he would somehow salvage par.
The front nine was a grind, though he managed a birdie at the par-5 15th to reach the turn one under. Thereafter it was ugly, his failure to find a fairway off the tee costing him bogeys at the second (his 11th), third (12th), fifth (14th) and sixth (15th).
“I was battling. I was scrambling well to be under par for that back nine. I probably didn't quite hit it as well off the tee as I did yesterday, and wasn't putting myself in positions where I could go at a lot of pins. But greens are firm. Some of the pin positions are really tricky. Anything under par today is a really good score.
“I had a little bit of a mini-rally at the end which I needed, but the four bogeys on the front nine (his back nine), that's just down to being out of position off the tee and not being able to get it very close with my second shot.”
Indeed, McIlroy could manage no better than an average 46 yards proximity to the hole with his approaches, which is never going to get it done. He at least finished like a champion and might want to carry a mental picture of his last hole into today’s round.
For once the driver was in sync, smashing the ball fully 365 yards, clearing the tree that guards the landing area by a mile. He lasered his approach to 14 feet and did all he could to get the ball in the hole at the first attempt, rolling it to the lip, where it stayed.
Perhaps he should take a leaf out of Matsuyama’s book. The strategy is not to hole them but send them out in the general direction of the cup and hope gravity makes the ball disappear. “The greens here at Quail Hollow, as you know, are really fast. And there's a lot of putts that honestly, I'm not trying to make. I'm just trying to get it up near the hole, and a lot of them are going in,” he said. “I haven't really putted that well all year until of late.”
Matsuyama has the same putter in the bag as he used at Firestone, ditching the mallet to good effect. His is the uber methodological approach, the pause at the top of the backswing echoed in the measured stroke on the greens. He has shown how dangerous he can be once that eye is in.
No Japanese has ever won a major. Matsuyama has never led the field in a big one. It’s all new, and he is loving every minute. “I don't know if the other players should be nervous or not, but this is my first experience leading a major, or tied for the lead after 36 holes. And so being a new experience, maybe I'll be a little nervous, but on the other hand, I'm looking forward to the weekend and seeing how I do.”
Overnight leader Thorbjorn Olesen had a torrid afternoon after starting with a birdie. He was fortunate that bad light ended his day early. He returns to complete his second round at two over par, six over for his round.
Paul Casey continues to lead the British challenge on three under par after a second round 70. Lee Westwood comes next on one over par with three holes of his second round to complete.
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