Hideki Matsuyama exploded with a magnificent seven-under-par 65 to spearhead Asia’s US Open challenge on Friday as Li Haotong carved a piece of history for China.
Matsuyama, who struggled with a two-over-par 74 on Thursday, roared up the leaderboard with a front nine birdie blitz to finish the day at five under.
With just two strokes separating Matsuyama from the leading group, and no major winners in the top 18 players on the leaderboard, the Japanese star now looks as good a bet as any to challenge for the title this weekend.
Matsuyama’s chances are also boosted by the early exit of the three players above him in the world rankings — Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day.
“I’m very excited and very happy with the score,” Matsuyama said. “There were a couple of loose swings out there, but when you shoot 65, you can take those.”
Matsuyama’s sizzling run of birdies began on the par-five first, when he reached the edge of the green in two before getting up and down for birdie.
A chip to six feet set up a further birdie on the second before a superb iron to left him with an easy birdie on the fourth.
A solid tee-shot on the par-three sixth gave him another chance which he rolled in nervelessly from 13ft.
It was the start of three consecutive birdies. Another sublime wedge from the fairway to three feet presented him with a tap-in on the seventh while on the eighth, he stroked home 22ft effort to move to six under for the round.
A relative lull followed with four straight pars but another long-range putt — this time from 28ft — presented him with a seventh birdie on the 13th.
“The biggest difference was I putted very well today,” said Matsuyama, who could become only the second Asian-born man after South Korea Yang Yong-Eun to win a major this weekend. Yang defeated Tiger Woods to win the PGA Championship in 2009.
Elsewhere Friday, Chinese golfing prodigy Li celebrated becoming the first player from mainland China to make the cut of a major.
The 21-year-old shot a two-under-par 70 to finish with a level par 36-hole aggregate of 144, seven off the lead.
The other big Asian mover on Friday was South Korea’s Kim Si-Woo.
Kim carded four birdies and two bogeys for a two-under-par 70 which left him at five under.
It is the first time in three attempts Kim has progressed beyond the half-way stage of a major championship after missing the cut at last year’s PGA Championship and this year’s Masters.
The 21-year-old from Seoul, who is still riding high after a victory at The Players Championship last month, said that win at TPC Sawgrass had infused him with belief coming into the US Open.
“Players gave a lot of confidence for me,” said Kim, who plans to adopt the same approach into the weekend. “I’m just going to try to the same that I’ve done the last two days,” he said.
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