Hideki Matsuyama is starting to feel healthy, and being at the Memorial usually makes him happy. That much was evident Friday when the Japanese star rolled in a series of birdie putts for a 7-under 65 and a one-shot lead.
Matsuyama, whose first PGA Tour title came at Muirfield Village in 2014, made a 25-foot birdie on the par-5 seventh and a 30-footer on the par-3 eighth to take the lead in the morning, just as the wind was starting to blow.
Patrick Cantlay, a two-time winner at Muirfield Village, stayed with him most of the day and posted a 67. He was one behind, along with David Lipsky (69).
Matsuyama and Cantlay played together — Billy Horschel joined them and was 12 shots better than his opening 84 — and put on quite a show of ball-striking and timely putting.
“To make those putts at 7 and 8 were huge,” Matsuyama said. “I made some good par-saving putts today. The course is playing tough, especially the greens. If the greens get even harder than they are now, it’s going to be a challenge this weekend. But today, the putts went in and so I’m satisfied.” Cantlay has made only two bogeys in 36 holes, impressive considering how exacting Muirfield Village has played with fast fairways and warm, sunny conditions.
His best shot of the day was a 6-iron that covered the flag on the par-3 16th, the toughest of the par 3s and no one’s favorite on the course Jack Nicklaus built. It pitched next to the hole and wound up in a tough lie in the rough. He had to made a 6-footer for par.
Rory McIlroy was mostly satisfied with his finish. He played well on Thursday only to get a terrible break when his ball hung in thick grass on the slope of a bunker, leading to a triple bogey on the 18th hole that wiped out his good work and gave him a 72.
This time he finished strong for a 68 that puts him in the mix going into the weekend.
McIlroy still doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with this swing. Even after winning in Dubai at the start of the the year and contending at Bay Hill, he is trying to get his swing back in the same position it was. He can manage that fine on the range. Put a scorecard in his hand, or a hazard in his view and it becomes different.
It’s a matter of trust and feel. He think he’s getting there.
“An empty head is not great, but then obviously a head that’s full of clutter is no good, either,” McIlroy said. “So it’s trying to find that balance where you’ve got a couple of thoughts or a couple of ideas in your head, but you don’t let that overshadow what you’re really trying to do out there, which is being visual and trying to play shots and be as instinctive as possible.” Jordan Spieth had a 72 and was four shots behind Matsuyama. Davis Riley, who opened with a 67 in tougher afternoon conditions, followed with a 78 in the relative calm of Friday morning.
Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler were among those playing in the afternoon.
The course has been playing much tougher in the afternoon because of the wind and relentless sun that bakes the fairways. Cantlay had 15 pars on Thursday in a round of 70 and felt he played well. He also knew Friday morning would be better for scoring and he needed to take advantage, and he did that.
So did Matsuyama, with a performance so strong that he putted for birdie on all but two holes. One of those was the 16th, where he saved par from a front bunker.
It led to the low score of the tournament so far with 60 players still going in the afternoon. But no one expects it to get any easier on the weekend.
Some players won’t get that chance. The cut was shaping up to be the highest in 14 years (4 over). Among those certain to miss were Justin Thomas (75-75) and PGA contender Corey Conners (77-75).
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