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Celebrating 10 years of Hideki Matsuyama magic

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    Written by Chuah Choo Chiang @chuahcc

    Brian Harman, the reigning Open champion, tells a funny tale of how he and fellow PGA TOUR winner Matt Every made a poor error in judgement on a young Asian golfer more than a decade ago. In contrast, Jack Nicklaus, holder of a record 18 major victories, knew the golf world was in for a special treat with the emergence of a rising star.

    Paired together in the opening two rounds of the 2012 Sony Open in Hawaii alongside one of several Japanese sponsor exemptions that week, Harman’s first impression was similar to Every’s thoughts – “Don’t think this kid’s got it.”

    “So we're playing with this kid, and he's very nervous and there are photographers all over the place," said Harman. "He dribbled a couple off the tee boxes and Matt and I made the comment, don't think this kid's got it. He's like nervous beyond all belief. Missed the cut. Didn't play good at all. Don't think this guy is gonna make it … Hideki Matsuyama."

    Yup, the very same Hideki Matsuyama, who is now Asia’s winningest golfer on the PGA TOUR with nine career victories to date – four more than Harman and Every combined – and the proud owner of a green jacket following a historic triumph at the 2021 Masters Tournament.

    “So Matt and I would joke about that," Harman laughed. "Yeah, we missed on that one.”

    This week marks Matsuyama’s 10th anniversary of his maiden PGA TOUR victory at the Memorial Tournament presented by Workday, an event hosted by golf legend Jack Nicklaus. The octogenarian vividly remembers Matsuyama’s glorious march to victory at Muirfield Village and how he instantly liked what he saw.

    “When he won, I said, he's going to win a lot of golf tournaments and he's going win some majors,” said Nicklaus. “He was a good player before he got here, obviously, or he wouldn't have been here. I knew that, we all knew that,” added the 84-year-old on Matsuyama, who was a two-time Asia-Pacific Amateur champion before turning professional.


    Hideki Matsuyama breaks through with first TOUR win at the Memorial


    During his prime, Nicklaus, winner of 73 PGA TOUR victories, battled against Japanese top golfers including Isao Aoki, Jumbo Ozaki and Naomichi “Joe” Ozaki but he rates Matsuyama as the “best of the bunch.” The Golden Bear marvels especially at how Matsuyama has established himself in the U.S. despite challenges with the language barrier, along with food and cultural differences.

    “It's pretty difficult for someone, particularly coming from a country where the language is difficult and basically live and play here all year long," said Nicklaus. "He's done really well, he's won the Masters, won several other tournaments. He's going to win more majors. He's just too good a player.”

    From the career breakthrough at Nicklaus’s tournament, Matsuyama has since cemented his stature as Asia’s most decorated golfer. A stunning victory at the Tiger Woods-hosted Genesis Invitational in February, where he closed with a final round 62 at Riviera to overcome a six-shot deficit and win by three, saw him break a tie with Korea’s K.J. Choi at eight titles. As of this week, the 32-year-old Matsuyama has also enjoyed seven runner-up finishes and 60 top-10 outings from 255 official starts. This tallies to over $50 million in career earnings, ranking him 12th in the all-time earnings list on the PGA TOUR.


    Hideki Matsuyama’s Round 4 highlights from Genesis


    After being tasked with the responsibility to take Matsuyama under his wing at the 2013 Presidents Cup where they partnered across four matches, Australia’s Adam Scott became a life-long admirer of Matsuyama’s success and influence on the game in Japan. The 43-year-old Scott, a 14-time PGA TOUR winner, had a front row seat when Matsuyama prevailed at Muirfield Village as they were paired together in the final round.

    “I was pulling for him as soon as it was like, Adam, you're not going to win today with a few holes to go," Scott recalled. "I really wanted to see Hideki take that step and win a big one. So he played great down the stretch and got it done. It was his time."

    Time did not stand still as Matsuyama went on to win twice in each of 2016 and 2017, and rose to a career high No. 2 on the Official World Golf Ranking. Back and neck injuries slowed down his march until Matsuyama saw green at Augusta National when he claimed a momentous triumph at the 2021 Masters Tournament, making him the first Japanese male major champion. Such was the magnitude of the moment that the Japanese government used its national alert system, usually activated for natural disasters and emergency warnings, to send out a notice of congratulations after Matsuyama holed his final putt.


    Japanese fans react to Hideki Matsuyama’s Masters victory


    Like Tiger Woods, Matsuyama’s rise to sporting fame meant that every shot and stride taken on the golf course is closely followed by Japanese media, which Scott appreciates the weight of expectations that Matsuyama has to carry for a golf-mad nation. “He's dealt with a lot of pressure from this country really well,” said Scott.

    “And even though I'm sure he wants to achieve more, I think his achievements are really phenomenal," Scott added. "His consistency, I think, is probably a little overlooked these days. You know how well he's played these first 10 years of his career, year after year, and of course, resulting in a big win, winning the Masters and being the first Japanese to do that is a massive thing. Hideki is one of the biggest sports stars in Japan. He’s a needle mover, and, as they should be so proud of him and what he's been doing.”

    There is a stroke of good fortune involved in Matsuyama’s climb from his amateur days to the play-for-pay ranks. When he lifted the first of two Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship titles in 2010, he initially wasn’t part of the Japanese squad but as the event was being staged in Saitama, the host nation was granted four additional spots, one of which Matsuyama got. “I was very fortunate to receive one of the additional invitations," he said. "Winning the 2010 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship was life changing."

    Matsuyama’s ascension has no doubt been one of golf’s feel-good stories for Asian sports, and his journey tracks back to the early days when his father, Mikio, first put a club in his hands as a child. Many believe his nine PGA TOUR victories feels like he is now making the turn in what is already an illustrious career, which also features eight Japan Golf Tour titles.

    The stunning 62 fired at The Genesis Invitational wasn’t his lowest final round score en route to a famous victory. At Firestone in 2017, he lit up the golf course with a birdie-fest 61 to lift a second World Golf Championships title, a moment which made Tokyo Olympic Games gold medalist, Xander Schauffele, sit up and take notice of Matsuyama’s prodigious talents.


    Hideki Matsuyama shoots 61 en route to victory at Bridgestone


    “I think the first time I was sort of like, ‘holy smokes, this guy is unbelievable’ is when he shot like 61 at Firestone," said Schauffele. "I remember sitting there with Austin (his caddie) and saying, like, we thought like 68 was a good round. But he shot 61. He just works his butt off, has a good team around him, and he keeps his head down and trucks through all the pressure and expectations and all those things that come with being a top player."

    While Matsuyama is tipped to add to his silverware collection, the trickle effect in the Japanese golf culture where youngsters look up to him as a “senpai”, or mentor, has been gathering momentum. Isao Aoki, the first golfer from Japan to win on the PGA TOUR in 1983, anticipates his heroics will inspire a new era for the country, which has seen the emergence of rising talents such as Ryo Hisatsune, Keita Nakajima, Taiga Semikawa and Takumi Kanaya. “It's the beginning of a new era and I am sure there will be a lot of golfers who'd like to follow in Matsuyama's steps,” Aoki predicts.


    Isao Aoki cards eagle to win 1983 Hawaiian Open


    Shigeki Maruyama, a three-time PGA TOUR winner, added: “I was able to make it to the PGA TOUR because I saw Aoki-san win the Hawaiian Open when I was a kid, and I wanted to be like him. Aoki-san hadn't won in mainland U.S., which I was able to accomplish. History gets better little by little. Now that Hideki has won a major title, I'm convinced one of younger golfers who gets motivated by him will become the next major champion from Japan some day. I'm expecting Hideki to stack up more wins going forward, inspiring Japanese golfers to dream even bigger. I think he's capable of winning 10 or even 15 tournaments.”

    One of the many Japan’s young talents who has been driven by Matsuyama’s success is Keita Nakajima, who is on track to play his way onto the PGA TOUR via the DP World Tour which rewards the top-10 non-exempt players with dual memberships with the PGA TOUR. “Ten years ago, I was only 14 and I watched him win the (Memorial) tournament and that made me really want to play with him on the PGA TOUR,” said Nakajima, a former World Amateur No. 1 and currently ranked 16th on the DP World Tour’s Race to Dubai rankings.


    Keita Nakajima watches Hideki Matsuyama win Sony Open


    Despite the adoration and fame, Matsuyama has chosen to stay out of the spotlight whenever he is not showcasing his tenacity and talents inside the ropes while fighting for tournament wins to bring glory and honour to his native country. He remains modest of his successes, and prefers to use it as fuel to push forward instead.

    “I just want to work hard and play well, rather than think about what I had done,” said Matsuyama. “My life has changed gradually after being on TOUR for 10 years. In that sense, it is fulfilling right now. I want to keep working hard for another 10 or 20 years.

    “When I see some younger players playing well on the global stage now, I feel like they believe they can also win, which is very important to me. At the same time, I want to work hard to win more majors and it would be great if we could compete against each other for a championship someday.

    “I am just fortunate my hard work has paid off, so there are no secrets.”

    Chuah is senior director, marketing & communications – APAC for the PGA TOUR. Based in Malaysia, he has been a strong advocate for Asian golf over the past two decades. Follow his #AsiaRising tweets @chuahcc Follow Chuah Choo Chiang on Twitter.

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