OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — One of the PGA Tour's toughest tests of the year made it clear that par would be a great score.
Leave it to Hideki Matsuyama to sink a 65-foot birdie putt on his final hole Thursday at Olympia Fields Country Club to lead the BMW Championship.
Matsuyama, the Japanese player who has gone three years since his most recent victory, birdied two of his last three holes for a 3-under-par 67, one of only three rounds under par on a course that was long, tough, firm, fast — and nothing like the low-scoring past two weeks in the Wyndham Championship to close the regular season or The Northern Trust to open the FedEx Cup playoff.
Tyler Duncan, just outside the pivotal top 30 players in the points standings as he tries to earn his first trip to the season-ending Tour Championship, made an eight-foot par putt on his last hole for a 68. Canada's Mackenzie Hughes, one of only four players who reached 3 under at any point in his round, was another shot behind.
"I'm not sure really what I had going today, but that last putt, the long putt that went in, very happy with that one," Matsuyama said. "So we'll remember that one."
Ten players were tied for fourth after opening with a 70, and seven more were within four strokes of Matsuyama, including Dustin Johnson, who is No. 1 in the FedEx standings and the Official World Golf Ranking after a 30-under win Sunday at TPC Boston. Baylor School graduate Harris English, the tournament runner-up to Johnson and a safe No. 6 in the FedEx standings, shot a 75 and was tied for 51st.
Johnson felt like his 71 was a good day's work. He was told that even three straight rounds of 60 would not be enough to reach 30 under at Olympia Fields.
"Yeah, but I would win," he said.
By a landslide, no doubt.
Tiger Woods needs to finish around fourth to have any hope of returning to East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta next week to chase the $15 million bonus for the FedEx Cup winner. He was hovering around par and a few shots out of the lead, then finished with three straight bogeys for a 73 and was running hotter than the weather.
A three-time U.S. Open champion, Woods knows all about control and patience and key pars putts. And then he let a reasonable round get away from him.
"The course was fine. The course is in perfect shape. Not the way I wanted to finish," Woods said in brief comments.
The average score was 72.8, and only four of the 18 holes played under par, including both par 5s. This is what the U.S. Open could have used in 2003 at Olympia Fields, instead of rain-softened conditions. It was hot in the morning, baking out a dry course. The rough is five inches deep in spots. The putting surfaces were hard, making it tough to get the ball close and nearly impossible to get shots to stop on the green from out of the rough.
"I think when golf courses become like this and pars are a premium, I think I'm almost more comfortable at times because you don't feel like you'll ever get left behind when you're running off a few pars in a row," Hughes said. "Like last week, if you got off to a slow start and you were even par through six holes, you felt like you were getting run over."
Rory McIlroy was among 10 players who finished at 70 and felt the day was a success. The former world No. 1 hasn't registered a top-10 finish since professional golf returned from the coronavirus shutdown in June, and he conceded to being lethargic without fan energy.
"I said last week if you need someone to shoot between like even par and 2 under, I'm your man," McIlroy said. "So I'm loving these conditions. It's sort of weird. The way my game feels at the minute, it's just as easy for me to shoot even par here as it was last week in Boston, for whatever reason that is.
"But this is proper golf," he said. "You've really got to think about stuff. It's nice to play a round of golf like that again."
Also in that group at par was Mexico's Carlos Ortiz, notable because he was the latest player to be grouped with Woods for the first time. He raved about how the 15-time major champion with a record-tying 82 PGA Tour wins controls the flight of his irons. He missed out on the massive crowd because there are no spectators, only carts carrying the broadcast crew.
"It's probably the least amount of people he's played in front of," Ortiz said, "and the most for me."