ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP: Punters facing Hideki Matsuyama riddle after home star opens with 64

The local Japanese hero made a fast start at Narashino Country Club on Thursday but can he keep it going for the final 54 holes?

In the build-up to this week's ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP in Japan, Hideki Matsuyama was proving a popular pick with punters.

With prices of 12/1 and 14/1 available, the local man was double the odds of Xander Schauffele and Collin Morikawa and seemed to represent some obvious value.

Not only was Matsuyama playing in front of his home fans, he also had course form after finishing runner-up when this tournament was played at Narashino in 2019.

Tiger Woods had taken the title that year, six months on from his incredible Masters triumph.

That seemed a good omen too. Matsuyama had won the green jacket earlier this year so was hoping to repeat Tiger's Masters-ZOZO double.

The planets looked aligned until, on the eve of the tournament, Matsuyama came out with these rather unsettling comments.

"I have jet lag a bit and, to be honest, my game is not in a good shape.

"Ball striking, putting, chipping, all of these have not reached the level I want. If my game scored 10 out of 10 at the Masters, now I would say it scores less than 1."

Wow: 1 out of 10. Suddenly the Matsuyama bet seemed compromised.

Player comments meaningful or just noise?

Most golfers talk themselves up and try to keep a positive mindset. They believe in the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy: talk a good game and that will make it more likely for good results to follow.

So what do we make of Matsuyama's comments? Brutally honest? A defence mechanism to lower expectations in front of his adoring fans?

You could say the proof is in the pudding so what did Hideki serve up on day one?

Seemingly making light of his own assessment, the 29-year-old went out and shot a 64!

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His 6-under par lap was one of just three bogey-free rounds and good enough for tied second place, only one back from leader Hiroshi Iwata.

Matsuyama's strong start put him six shots clear of Schauffele and seven in front of Morikawa. And yet both the two Americans had sounded full of confidence.

Some might say the lesson here is that it's folly to listen to player quotes. Perhaps, but that hard-line approach can be a one-dimensional strategy. Often, nuance is needed rather than drawing simplifed conclusions.

So what did Matsuyama say after making light of his pre-tournament quotes?

Matsuyama quotes after first-round 64

His interview was brief but he was keen to make the same point.

Q. Hideki, well played. What are you most happy about with your round today?

HIDEKI MATSUYAMA: I've shot 6 under the last two tournaments on the first day and I just hope I can keep it going this time.

Q. I know that you were not too happy with Vegas, the two weeks there. What did you find in your game today for this good start?

HIDEKI MATSUYAMA: Getting back, I shot 6 under at Shriners, 6 under at CJ again and so again, I just hope I can keep the momentum going for the rest of the week this time.

Very clearly, Matsuyama is more than aware that a good opening round is no guarantee of a successful week.

In those two Vegas events, he was 10th after round one at the Shriners before falling away to finish 67th while he again couldn't build on a hot start at the CJ CUP, tumbling from seventh after 18 holes to 59th after 72.

Conclusion

It could well be that Matsuyama is set fair now and goes on to win the tournament.

But I'm going to take the angle that recent history repeats and that his own pre-tournament concerns do have some merit.

Therefore, I'll take him on in his Friday second-round three-ball against Schauffele and CT Pan.

Schauffele didn't have the best of days in round one but there's every chance he closes the gap on Matsuyama on Friday.

Pan shot 6-over in the first round so doesn't look the threat he might have been.

READ MORE: Spotlight on: Rickie Fowler in the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP

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