Even without a breath of wind, perfect course conditions and ideal temperatures for golf, Narashino Country Club outside of Tokyo played plenty tough on Thursday during the first round of the Zozo Championship. It was quite the changeup from the Vegas Swing, which featured a pair of predictable PGA Tour birdiefests, the winner reaching at least 24 under over four days on both occasions.
There will be no 24 unders this week though, as Narashino played even harder on Friday thanks to our good ol’ friend Mother Nature. Cold temperatures and consistent rain throughout the round wreaked havoc on the field, with four-under-par 66 tying for low round of the day and 30 players shooting two over or worse. After 36 holes, just 29 of the 78 players in the field are under par.
Among that group is Brendan Steele, who surprised himself by shooting a two-under 68 in the trying elements.
“This was a day that I’ve been concerned about for quite a while,” said Steele, referring to the weather. “I’m from California, I do not play in the rain. When it rains, I stay inside. My game doesn’t usually translate that well to the weather.”
It has so far, with Steele pulling within two shots of Hideki Matsuyama’s lead, the local hero shooting a 68 after his opening 64 in a quest for his seventh PGA Tour win. Joaquin Niemann didn’t fare quite as well, shooting a one-over 71. But that was a small victory considering how he started his round.
“Yeah, it wasn’t easy. Starting I think off No. 10, you’ve got No. 10, 11, 12, they were not playing easy, hitting 5-irons to the green,” said Niemann, who began his day bogey-bogey. “But after that I played really solid. I was lucky to have a nice group where we enjoyed it a little bit more, tried to forget a little bit the weather. It was freezing, couldn’t feel my hands and I managed to have a good round, so I’m happy.”
Fellow South American Sebastián Muñoz had a solid round, too. More than solid, in fact, as Muñoz was one of four players to shoot a four-under 66 on Friday. The right mindset was a key factor, says Muñoz, who is four back in a tie for seventh.
“I think I find comfort in that it’s going to play tough for everyone,” he said. “It’s not like someone’s going to have great weather in the afternoon, so I know whoever has the best attitude’s going to do a little bit better.”
An Englishman embraces the elements (shocker)
Much like Muñoz, Matthew Wallace entered the day with the proper attitude when it came to the weather. Being from England, he has played in far worse conditions.
“Well, I like it,” Wallace said. “It’s kind of like home, but you’ve got to enjoy it and you’ve got to embrace it. Out there I just felt like pars were good scores.”
Pars are great scores on major championship weeks, where Wallace has shined in recent years. Not as much during the regular season, though, which requires birdies in bunches. This week, that’s not the case, which allowed Wallace to make eight straight pars to begin his second round and feel like he gained ground, right up until his first of two blemishes on the ninth hole.
“I gave away a couple holes today, [the] two bogeys are from giving it away,” he said. “On the ninth I was in the middle of the fairway and then middle of the fairway on the par 5 [14th]. Just two errors I gave away, but the rest of it was nice and solid and kept the score going until the end there. I waited for that and it rewarded me.”
Wallace ended his day by going birdie-birdie-birdie, jumping from three under to six under, which has him only two off the lead of Matsuyama.
“It would be nice to play with him on Sunday,” Wallace said. “I need to get my swing sorted, I haven’t hit it as well as I have done two weeks ago, so if I’m going to put it together, we’ll be there come Sunday.”
Journeyman inches closer toward maiden win
After a number of close calls a season ago, Cameron Tringale has picked up where he left off. The 34-year-old journeyman matched the low round of the day Friday, shooting a four-under 66 to reach seven under for the tournament, which has him one back of Matsuyama.
“I produced a steady round of golf really,” Tringale said. “I kept it in front of me, I hit a lot of good iron shots. The course played really long in this cold weather and being so wet. Just made some nice swings with my irons and kind of left myself in the right positions on these greens and was able to make a few putts. That was the day.”
This marks the fifth time in the last 12 months where Tringale will enter the weekend in legitimate contention as he seeks out his first career PGA Tour victory and the chance to get rid of the label as the tour pro to have earned the most career money ($14,522,401) without a win. He’s fared OK in each of the previous four instances, highlighted by a Sunday 62 last November at the RSM, where he finished in solo third. The lone struggle though came at the Valero Texas Open, where he began the weekend with the lead and shot rounds of 73 and 72 to finish T-9.
On Saturday, Tringale will play with Matsuyama, the Masters champion and solo leader. in front of his home fans in Japan. Your thoughts, Cameron?
“I mean, nothing. Keep playing, try and keep my head down, be friendly.”