Ja­pan’s Ris­ing Son

An as­tound­ing hot streak has lifted Hideki Mat­suyama to 5th po­si­tion in the World Golf Rank­ings and en­forced the opin­ion that the 24-year-old is ready to be­come Ja­pan’s first male ma­jor cham­pion, writes Stuart Hood

Golf Asia (Malaysia) - - PROFILE -

They call the last few months of the year golf’s ‘silly sea­son’, but there has been noth­ing ridicu­lous about Hideki Mat­suyama’s re­cent form. Since fin­ish­ing

5th in the Tour Cham­pi­onship at the end of Septem­ber, Ja­pan’s top golfer has played in five in­di­vid­ual stroke­play events and won four of them. It is a sen­sa­tional run of form that has pro­pelled him to the top of the PGA Tour money list, car­ried him to a ca­reer-high 5th po­si­tion in the Of­fi­cial World Golf Rank­ings and prompted a lot of peo­ple to start ask­ing: could this 24-year-old be golf’s next big thing?

It’s im­pos­si­ble to over­look Mat­suyama’s case for golf­ing su­per­star­dom. As an am­a­teur, the man from Shikoku Is­land won two Asia-Pa­cific Am­a­teur Cham­pi­onships, re­ceived an R&A schol­ar­ship, steered his coun­try to suc­cess in the World Univer­sity Games, won a pro­fes­sional event on the Ja­pan Tour and reached World No.1. Since turn­ing pro­fes­sional in early 2013, he has won seven Ja­pan Tour events, se­cured two PGA Tour ti­tles, fin­ished in the top 7 of three of the last eight ma­jors and be­come the first Asian to taste suc­cess at a WGC event. “It’s a great vic­tory for me,” he smiled af­ter storm­ing to a seven-stroke vic­tory in Novem­ber’s WGCHSBC Cham­pi­ons. “I’m happy and thrilled and re­ally speech­less.”

Mat­suyama might have been lost for words, but oth­ers weren’t. “Hideki just played unbelievable and it was a plea­sure to watch. You can learn a lot from watch­ing him play,” lauded joint run­ner-up Daniel Berger, while Scot­land’s Russell Knox, who played with Mat­suyama dur­ing the fi­nal two rounds, of­fered the fol­low­ing per­for­mance re­view. “When Hideki is on, he is as good as anyone. He showed no weak­nesses over the two days. He drove the ball well and is an ex­tremely ag­gres­sive iron player. He made ev­ery­thing look very easy.”

Fast-forward a few weeks, swap China for the Ba­hamas and Mat­suyama was again mak­ing things look easy. Af­ter 54 holes of the Hero World Chal­lenge he was seven strokes clear of the field and seem­ingly set for a Sunday stroll. Then Hen­rik Sten­son started charg­ing and Mat­suyama be­gan stum­bling. By the time the pair reached the 18th the mar­gin had been cut to two. And when the Ja­panese player’s ap­proach to the fi­nal green flew over the back and Sten­son’s nes­tled in 12 feet from the hole the gallery be­gan get­ting ex­cited. Would Mat­suyama fail to get up and down? Were they about to see a play-off? No and no. The 24-year-old snuffed out the Open Cham­pion’s chal­lenge by ca­ress­ing his third shot to tap-in dis­tance.

“It was a very classy chip,” ad­mit­ted Sten­son.

It was also the lat­est ev­i­dence of what Mat­suyama calls his “step-by-step de­vel­op­ment through the past few years on the PGA Tour”. When he first turned pro­fes­sional, the Ja­panese player was some­times too quick to let the red mist de­scend. It was a flaw that saw him throw away the odd vic­tory and cre­ate the odd neg­a­tive head­line, most mem­o­rably at the 2014 WGC-Cadil­lac Cham­pi­onship where he is­sued a public apol­ogy af­ter bury­ing his put­ter in the 13th green. Now, these tem­per tantrums are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ir­reg­u­lar and his world rank­ing, bank bal­ance and tro­phy cab­i­net are reap­ing the ben­e­fits. Not only did the World No.5 earn more than $7 mil­lion on the course in 2016, he was also the only lead­ing male pro­fes­sional to claim five vic­to­ries in the cal­en­dar year.

“It’s go­ing to give him a boat load of con­fi­dence go­ing into next year,” ad­mit­ted Tiger Woods af­ter pre­sent­ing Mat­suyama with the Hero World Chal­lenge tro­phy. As if to prove as much, the Ja­panese player in­stantly cast his mind forward to Au­gusta. “Start­ing next week all my fo­cus and prepa­ra­tion will be for the Mas­ters, that is my next goal,” he said.

Judg­ing by the bet­ting mar­ket for April’s Mas­ters, Bri­tain’s book­mak­ers are tak­ing this state­ment of in­tent se­ri­ously. At the time of writ­ing, the best odds you can get on

“Not only did the World No.6 earn over $7 mil­lion in 2016, he was also the only male pro­fes­sional to claim five vic­to­ries in the cal­en­dar year”

the 24-year-old win­ning the first ma­jor of the year is 18/1. This price makes him fifth favourite for the ti­tle, be­hind Rory McIl­roy, Jordan Spi­eth, Jason Day and Dustin John­son, but ahead of reign­ing Open Cham­pion Hen­rik Sten­son, Olympic Cham­pion Justin Rose and a num­ber of for­mer Mas­ters winners in­clud­ing Bubba Wat­son, Adam Scott and Phil Mick­el­son. Even al­low­ing for his re­cent form, this will sur­prise a few peo­ple, but when you con­sider Mat­suyama’s his­tory at Au­gusta it seems about right.

The Ja­panese player first drove up

Mag­no­lia Lane in 2011. Back then, he was a fresh-faced am­a­teur who most peo­ple ex­pected to miss the cut. Most peo­ple were wrong. The 19-year-old shot rounds of 72, 73, 68 and 74 to fin­ish in a tie for 27th and se­cure the Sil­ver Cup as low am­a­teur. “The ap­plause from the gallery as I came up the hill on the 18th gave me chills,” he re­vealed af­ter his fi­nal round. “I was happy to hear that and happy also that I was able to fin­ish up with a birdie. That’s a great mem­ory

I can take home.”

More good feel­ings were banked in 2012, when he be­came one of the only ama­teurs in his­tory to make the cut at Au­gusta twice. He didn’t play in 2013 and missed the cut in 2014, but his Mas­ters love af­fair was rekin­dled in 2015, when he shot a fi­nal round 66 to climb into fifth place. Then, in 2016, he went into the fi­nal round just two shots off the lead.

A clos­ing 67 would have been good enough to earn Mat­suyama a Green Jacket, but he found trou­ble in the mid­dle of his front nine and, in the end, could only man­age a 73. “I learned a lot from that round,” he ad­mits. “I learned that you will be ner­vous no mat­ter what you do and I hope that I can use this ex­pe­ri­ence to my advantage when I’m in con­tention next time.”

No­tice that he says ‘when’ he is in con­tention next time, rather than ‘if’. Mat­suyama doesn’t speak much English at present (“I’m work­ing hard on it, but for some rea­son it’s just not stick­ing in my brain,” he laughs), but the con­fi­dence he has in his abil­ity and the ex­cite­ment he has re­gard­ing places it could take him are not lost in trans­la­tion. “I be­lieve I can be Ja­pan’s first male ma­jor win­ner,” he tells us, be­fore adding. “I re­ally want to be the first Ja­panese to do so.”

Whether the 24-year-old has the tal­ent and tem­per­a­ment to power across a line that golf­ing le­gends like Isao Aoki (2nd in the 1980 US Open), Shigeki Maruyama

(4th in 2004 US Open) and Jumbo Ozaki (World No.5 in 1997) could not quite breach is cur­rently one of the big­gest de­bates in the game. “I think he’ll be a ma­jor cham­pion within the next cou­ple of years,” says Jordan Spi­eth, but Tiger Woods isn’t quite so sure. “He’s go­ing to be one of the top guys to beat for a very long time, but you’ve got to do it in the big events in the sum­mer,” says the 14time ma­jor cham­pion.

Spi­eth and Woods may not quite be on the same page when it comes to Mat­suyama’s ma­jor des­tiny, but they agree that a vi­tal el­e­ment of win­ning grand slam cham­pi­onship is hol­ing im­por­tant putts at im­por­tant times.

The bad news for Mat­suyama’s fans is that he missed a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of make­able birdie putts when in con­tention at last year’s US PGA and ranked a lowly 103rd in the strokes gained putting statis­tic over the course of the PGA Tour’s 2015/16 sea­son.

The good news for Mat­suyama’s sup­port­ers is that, thanks to some ad­vice from coun­try­man Hiroshi Iwata, he be­lieves he is cur­rently putting bet­ter than ever be­fore. “I did not change any­thing dra­mat­i­cally,” he re­veals. “I just re­alised sev­eral fix points in my putting stroke. This has helped me make cru­cial putts when it mat­tered the most and this has been one of the key rea­sons for my suc­cess.”

Another key rea­son has been the men­tal im­prove­ment we men­tioned above, and a third has been his peren­ni­ally im­pres­sive long game. If you ever re­quire some­one to hit an iron shot for your life, put Mat­suyama very near the top of your list. De­spite not hav­ing a swing coach, the 5ft 11in pow­er­house is one of the most con­sis­tent ball-strik­ers in the

game. Last sea­son, he ranked 3rd in strokes gained with ap­proach shots, 2nd in prox­im­ity to the hole of all ap­proaches from 200-225 yards, 9th in prox­im­ity to the hole of all ap­proaches from 175-200 yards and 2nd in prox­im­ity to the hole of all ap­proaches from 75-100 yards. It is hugely im­pres­sive stuff, but if you think Mat­suyama is go­ing to let it go to his head, think again. “I’m hon­oured peo­ple see my iron play as the strength of my game, but I don’t think so at all,” says the 24-year-old. “I be­lieve I need to work on all parts of my game, es­pe­cially if I want to be World No.1.”

For golf’s powerbrokers, the prospect of Mat­suyama reach­ing top spot is sali­vat­ing for a num­ber of rea­sons. First, the fact he would be the first Asian golfer to se­cure that po­si­tion could spark a huge boom in golf­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion through­out that con­ti­nent. Sec­ond, the fact the World’s top golfer was Ja­panese would put the sport (and Mat­suyama him­self) slap bang in the mid­dle of the spot­light in the run-up to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Third, along with Aus­tralia’s Jason Day, Europe’s Rory McIl­roy and Amer­ica’s Jordan Spi­eth, he could form a young, hun­gry, di­verse and ul­tra-tal­ented global four­ball that thrills fans glob­ally.

We are ex­cited just think­ing about the above, but if you think Mat­suyama is go­ing to buy into the hype be­ing cre­ated around him, think again. “I am happy my rank­ing is go­ing up, but I know there are still a lot of great play­ers ahead of me, and that just gives me more in­cen­tive to work harder,” he states.

All of which just leaves us time to probe his plan for the up­com­ing year. “Fo­cus on one shot at a time,” he says. “That is all you can do and you should do. If I do that and per­form at my best, I be­lieve my re­sults will take care of them­selves.”

“If Mat­suyama could se­cure the World No.1 po­si­tion, it could spark a huge boom in golf­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion through­out Asia”

Mat­suyama is con­grat­u­lated by Russell Knox af­ter win­ning the WGC-HSBC Cham­pi­ons ti­tle in Novem­ber.

Mat­suyama’s bunker play im­proved in 2016, but the short game re­mains his big­gest weak­ness.

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