Cover Story

The defin­ing mo­ment of Hideki Mat­suyama, the stan­dard­bearer for golf in Ja­pan’s young and as­cen­dant ca­reer, was win­ning the 2016 WGC-HSBC Cham­pi­ons.

HK Golfer - - Contents - By The Ed­i­tors

Pun­dits con­tinue to tip Hideki Mat­suyama as po­ten­tial Ma­jor cham­pion af­ter his suc­cess­ful sea­son, and it all started af­ter he won the 2016 WGC-HSBC Cham­pi­ons.

When Hideki Mat­suyama be­gan to play at the 2016 World Golf Cham­pi­onshipHSBC Cham­pi­ons, he was just an­other good, young player, a tal­ented 20-some­thing on the brink of star­dom. By the end of the week, Mat­suyama had emerged as an in­ter­na­tional force.

Mat­suyama fol­lowed his vic­tory at the World Golf Cham­pi­onships-HSBC Cham­pi­ons with two ad­di­tional vic­to­ries on the PGA TOUR and fin­ished first in the FedExCup’s Reg­u­lar-Sea­son stand­ings.

By the end of the sea­son, he was the world No. 3 player. When pun­dits spoke about po­ten­tial Ma­jor cham­pi­ons, Mat­suyama’s name was men­tioned in the same breath as Jor­dan Spi­eth, Dustin John­son and Rory McIlroy. And it all started at the HSBC Cham­pi­ons.

That should not be sur­pris­ing. Since the tour­na­ment be­came a World Golf Cham­pi­onships event in 2009, the HSBC Cham­pi­ons has pro­duced a roll call of ex­cep­tional win­ners. Four of the eight are Ma­jor cham­pi­ons, and the other four have been mem­bers of ei­ther a Ry­der Cup or Pres­i­dents Cup team. Play­ers from six dif­fer­ent coun­tries have won the event over the last eight years, mak­ing it truly an in­ter­na­tional tour­na­ment.

“It’s great for the growth of the game in that part of the world. The tour­na­ment has been grow­ing a lot in the last few years,” said 2010 HSBC Cham­pi­ons win­ner Francesco Moli­nari of Italy.

“More and more play­ers from the U.S. are go­ing over there to play. I think it’s great to go there and al­low fans to ex­pe­ri­ence once a year golf live, a chance to see the best play­ers in the world.”

For his part, Moli­nari has found China very much to his lik­ing. Be­sides his 2010 HSBC Cham­pi­ons’ tri­umph, he teamed with brother Edoardo to win the World Cup of Golf for Italy in Shen­zhen in 2009.

Moli­nari will be play­ing in his sev­enth HSBC Cham­pi­ons, try­ing to de­throne Mat­suyama who de­fends his ti­tle Oct. 23-29 when the tour­na­ment re­turns to the She­shan In­ter­na­tional Golf Club in Shang­hai.

The top play­ers in the game will gather in China for one of the most im­por­tant tour­na­ments of the fall, one that can set the tone for the 2017-18 sea­son - just like it did for Mat­suyama. This year, the HSBC Cham­pi­ons will be the third of three Asian events in a row, fol­low­ing the US$7 mil­lion CIMB Clas­sic in Malaysia and the first-year US$9.25 mil­lion CJ CUP @ NINE BRIDGES in South Korea.

The HSBC Cham­pi­ons vic­tory was sig­nif­i­cant in many ways for Mat­suyama. In ad­di­tion to a three-year PGA TOUR ex­emp­tion, Of­fi­cial World Golf Rank­ing points and prize money, he be­came the first player from Ja­pan - the first from Asia, ac­tu­ally - to win a WGC event. It tied Mat­suyama with Shigeki Maruyama, one of his boy­hood he­roes, for most PGA TOUR wins by a Ja­panese player, a mark that Mat­suyama has since bro­ken.

“To win the HSBC was prob­a­bly my big­gest achieve­ment,” Mat­suyama said. “I was the first Asian to win that event, and to me, that was a big deal.”

Mat­suyama’s win at the HSBC Cham­pi­ons was a defin­ing mo­ment in his young, as­cen­dant ca­reer. It was a tremen­dous vic­tory over a field that was stacked with the best play­ers in the world. Mat­suyama opened the tour­na­ment with a 66 and never slowed. He fin­ished with rounds of 65-68-66 to fin­ish at 17-un­der. He com­pleted the fi­nal 45 holes with­out a bo­gey and won by seven shots over Hen­rik Sten­son and Daniel Berger, the third­widest mar­gin of vic­tory in a WGC event.

“Hideki played just un­be­liev­able, and it was a plea­sure to watch,” Berger said. “He struck it well. He putted well. He chipped it well. He did ev­ery­thing well, and that’s why he won by so many.”

In fact, bar­ring an un­prece­dented col­lapse in the last round, the only drama on the fi­nal day was whether Mat­suyama would wind up with 30 birdies for the week. A bold ap­proach shot on the 72nd hole wound up in the wa­ter and Mat­suyama had to set­tle for 29.

With his tank of con­fi­dence at full ca­pac­ity, Mat­suyama con­tin­ued to build on his HSBC Cham­pi­ons’ vic­tory. He won again at the Waste Man­age­ment Phoenix Open in Fe­bru­ary-suc­cess­fully de­fend­ing his ti­tle and again at the World Golf Cham­pi­onships Bridge stone In­vi­ta­tional in July. Only Justin Thomas (four) won more times dur­ing the 2016-17 reg­u­lar sea­son.

Mat­suyama, who was mar­ried and be­came a fa­ther in 2017, has been forced to deal with in­creased scru­tiny from the me­dia, es­pe­cially in his na­tive Ja­pan. A large corps of re­porters and pho­tog­ra­phers are on hand at each event to chron­i­cle his suc­cess. The at­ten­tion has helped raise his pro­file in his home coun­try to the point, where he is vir­tu­ally un­able to go out for a meal with­out be­ing recog­nised. It has also made him the stan­dard-bearer for golf in Ja­pan and el­e­vated what fans imag­ine for him, a fact he recog­nises.

“The ex­pec­ta­tions of peo­ple around me are high,” Mat­suyama said. “I don’t re­ally worry too much about that. Hope­fully not put too much pres­sure on my­self. But I know other peo­ple ex­pect a lot of me and all I can do is just try my best.”

The HSBC Cham­pi­ons has a his­tory of pro­duc­ing great win­ners, like Mat­suyama. The event was cre­ated in 2005 and be­came an of­fi­cial Euro­pean Tour and Asian Tour event a year later. It achieved World Golf Cham­pi­onships sta­tus in 2009 and be­came a part of the PGA TOUR’s FedExCup sched­ule in 2013.

The tour­na­ment draws the game’s best play­ers each year. In 2016 the field in­cluded ten ma­jor cham­pi­ons and eight of the top-10 play­ers in the Of­fi­cial World Golf Rank­ing. Twenty-five coun­tries were rep­re­sented in the 78-player field.

“It says some­thing about HSBC. It says some­thing about this golf tour­na­ment,” said World No. 1 Dustin John­son, who won the event in 2013. “They do a great job here. I think you’ll see more and more guys want­ing to come over here and play.”

“We play [HSBC Cham­pi­ons] out­side the U.S., so I think it’s very im­por­tant for global fans to have a chance to see the play­ers there and to be part of such an amaz­ing tour­na­ment that’s part of an amaz­ing se­ries of tour­na­ments such as the WGCs,” Moli­nari added. “It’s now nice to see the Amer­i­can stars trav­el­ling more and play­ing a lot all over the world.”

Scot­land’s Rus­sell Knox, the 2015 HSBC Cham­pi­ons’ win­ner, said, “It’s amaz­ing when you get to play against the strong­est fields in golf. There are so many mas­sive names here, and it’s the best way to test your game to see how good you stack up against the best of the best.”

Most of the com­peti­tors, like Mat­suyama, bring a lofty goal.

“Be­com­ing No. 1 in the world is the goal I think of all of us out here,” Mat­suyama said. “I still have some weak links in my game that I have to work on, but hope­fully, lit­tle by lit­tle, I’ll be able to im­prove and to fix what I need to, and hope­fully some­day com­pete for No. 1.”

Photo by AFP/Getty Im­ages

Fol­low­ing his vic­tory at the WGC-HSBC Cham­pi­ons in 2016, Hideki Mat­suyama had two ad­di­tional vic­to­ries on the PGA TOUR and fin­ished first in the FedExCup’s Reg­u­lar-Sea­son stand­ings. By the end of the sea­son, he was the world No. 3 player and be­came the stan­dard­bearer of golf in Ja­pan.

“The tour­na­ment has been grow­ing a lot in the last few years,” said 2010 WGC-HSBC Cham­pi­ons win­ner

Francesco Moli­nari

Mat­suyama cel­e­brates his vic­tory with his caddy fol­low­ing the fi­nal round of 2016 WGCHSBC Cham­pi­ons

“They do a great job here. I think you’ll see more and more guys want­ing to come over here and play,” said World No. 1 Dustin

John­son, who won the event in 2013

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