[PHOTO: Michael Owens]

What transpired today at Riviera Country Club is exactly how world-class golf tournaments are supposed to play out. A major champion from a golf-crazed country crafts a mind-boggling charge on a classic track to win a grand prize.

That’s a mouthful, but there was so much to admire about former Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama coming from six shots down at the outset and shooting a nine-under-par 62 for a stunning three-shot victory in the Genesis Invitational. The 31-year-old from Japan took home, by far, the biggest cash prize of his career of $US4 million because this was a $20 million signature event on the PGA Tour.

It doesn’t get much more “signature” than what Hideki did on the back nine at Riviera – twice hitting approaches a few inches from the hole among his six birdies in a back nine of 30. What’s more, Matsuyama came within inches with his birdie putt at 18 of setting the course record at vaunted Hogan’s Alley.

Since his watershed 2021 Augusta National triumph – the first for a player from Japan – Matsuyama had drifted down the world ranking to 55th, and he hadn’t posted a top-10 finish since last year’s Players Championship, 11 months ago. But he is still a player of the world and beautifully fits the profile of a golfer the tour covets as a champion in these new big-money, limited-field events. Matsuyama becoming the first Japanese player to win at Riviera, whose longtime owner is a countryman, is truly priceless.

Let’s not equivocate: the tour needed a winner with the stature of Matsuyama this week.

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It’s very early in golf’s newest New World Order, with these limited-field signature events being the current answer to Saudi Arabia’s LIV Golf throwing gobs of money to lure stars away. But if you’re going to tell fans that these tournaments have more juice in them, you need champions who come close to inspiring the masses.

That’s a big ask. We can count on one hand the players currently on tour who truly do that anyway, and they can all be identified by one name: Tiger, Rory and Jordan. They were all in the field this week, but none contended – Woods withdrawing with the flu during the second round; McIlroy suffering a rare ‘blah’ 24th place; and Spieth eliminating himself before the weekend with a scorecard gaffe.

Earlier this week, tour veteran Charley Hoffman, a playoff loser at last week’s WM Phoenix Open, spoke eloquently of the need for “storylines” on the tour. What he was talking about is exactly what we got for virtually all of the now-concluded West Coast swing: Chris Kirk and Grayson Murray overcoming personal demons; Nick Dunlap becoming the first amateur to win on the tour in 33 years; French grinder Matthieu Pavon prevailing as a tour rookie; Canadian Nick Taylor charging to win at Phoenix on Super Bowl Sunday.

The only true bummer came at Pebble Beach – elevated to signature status and with a great field, only to be plagued by weather so dreary that US Open champion Wyndham Clark was the 54-hole winner. Even that was hardly dull, with Clark setting the Pebble Beach course record with a Saturday 60.

The Genesis was the third signature event of eight that will be played this season, and it will probably be deemed a success by most standards. The weather was nearly perfect for this time of year in Los Angeles. The gallery was sizeable, but well behaved after the Scottsdale debacle. The Riviera conditioning was major-like. The final leaderboard featured a mix of veterans, Ryder Cuppers and current strong players.

With so much still in flux about what pro golf will look like in the coming years, depending on how PGA Tour Enterprises shapes up and the potential partnership with Saudi Arabia’s PIF, McIlroy admitted on Saturday that he didn’t know how long these signature events would even last. But as a big voice in how they shaped up, he said, “I think for these really big events and the ones that carry a lot of meaning and history – Riviera, Memorial, Bay Hill, those sort of events – I think this week’s worked pretty well. It would be great to have a couple extra guys still playing over the weekend, but overall, I think it’s worked pretty well so far.”

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His last point is one of ongoing contention. There was a field of 70 players in the Genesis, with the stated cut being the top 50 and ties and those 10 shots or closer to the lead. They ended up with 51 on the weekend (after Spieth’s DQ and Woods’ WD), with only 17 eliminated.

At that juncture, a cut seems rather pointless, especially when major winners such as Clark, Justin Thomas and Matt Fitzpatrick didn’t get to compete more at Riviera. Maybe they shoot 65 on Saturday and make your weekend broadcast more compelling.

According to tour sources, it was Woods, Jack Nicklaus – representing his Memorial – and those who run Arnold Palmer’s invitational who pushed for 36-hole cuts during negotiations. Their compromise position was to have fields of, say, 120. But the tour insisted on going small, concerned that allowing too many players to compete in elevated events would dilute the fields immediately after those events.

At any other tournaments, stars miss the cut and it’s tough luck. But the smaller the fields get, there’s more reason to protect the depth.

The clubs Hideki Matsuyama used to win the 2024 Genesis Invitational

Hoffman, 47, who played his way into the Genesis via his runner-up at Phoenix and has sat on the PGA Tour Policy Board for years, said today, after finishing 50th, that he believes the signature events have played out well thus far by highlighting stars and giving others the opportunity to qualify for them.

“They have kept the best players together more often, and that’s a good thing,” Hoffman said. “You lose some of the storylines of guys like myself, but maybe you gain them back by me getting into the field this week.

“From top to bottom, I would argue that this is what we really wanted – for all of the events to get better. It’s important to work your way into these events. If you look at the analysis of how to get the best fields, this was the way to do it. So far, it’s a very, very small sample size, but the storylines have been good.”

For the storyline crowd, that’s all we can ask for.