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Japan's rising son

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KAPALUA, MAUI, HI - JANUARY 07: Hideki Matsuyama of Japan exits from the 18th hole during the third round of the SBS Tournament of Champions at Plantation Course at Kapalua on January 7, 2017 in Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii. (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)

KAPALUA, MAUI, HI - JANUARY 07: Hideki Matsuyama of Japan exits from the 18th hole during the third round of the SBS Tournament of Champions at Plantation Course at Kapalua on January 7, 2017 in Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii. (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)

As Hideki Matsuyama's game blossoms, he chases the legacies of Japan's greatest players.

    Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin

    Hideki Matsuyama is still a few weeks from his 25th birthday, but he’s already won 12 times around the world. He enters this week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open ranked fifth in the world, the second-best ranking ever by a male golfer from Japan.

    Yet he’s nowhere close to being considered the greatest golfer from his homeland – at least according to the high bar he’s set for himself.

    “Jumbo won a hundred times, so unless I win a hundred times, I wouldn't be greater than Jumbo,” Matsuyama said after his win at December’s Hero World Challenge. “Jumbo” is Masashi Ozaki, the World Golf Hall of Famer who won more than 110 professional titles, including 94 times on the Japan Golf Tour.

    Matsuyama’s distance from Ozaki’s mark may be wider than the Pacific, but Matsuyama, who turns 25 on Feb. 25, is on pace to craft an unprecedented PGA TOUR resume for a player from his golf-mad country. Matsuyama’s three PGA TOUR victories, one of which came at last year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, already match the most for a player born in Japan.

    The eyes of his country are upon him. Matsuyama’s every move is documented by a corps of some two dozen Japanese media members.

    Breaking new ground

    He began this season with a run that made him the world’s hottest player, at least until Justin Thomas tore through the Hawaiian Islands. From October to January, Matsuyama posted four wins and two runners-up in six starts while moving atop the FedExCup standings.

    Matsuyama now sits second behind Thomas in the FedExCup thanks to a seven-shot win at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions and runners-up to Thomas at the CIMB Classic and SBS Tournament of Champions. His HSBC Champions win made him the first Asian player to win a World Golf Championship. His eyes are now set on a major.

    “Even Mr. Jumbo, Mr. (Isao) Aoki, Mr. (Tommy) Nakajima and Mr. (Shigeki) Maruyama weren’t able to win at the majors, so I would like to work hard in an attempt to achieve that,” said Matsuyama, who also owns eight victories on the Japan Tour.

    Aoki, who won the 1983 Hawaiian Open with a hole-out eagle on the final hole, was the first man from Japan to be enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame; he was runner-up to Jack Nicklaus in the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol. Nakajima reached No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking in 1987, the highest position by a Japanese man. Maruyama also won three PGA TOUR titles, and led the International Team to its lone Presidents Cup victory by going 5-0 in 1998 at Royal Melbourne.

    Forging a different path

    The previous generation of Japanese players only competed sparingly on the PGA TOUR, or waited until later in their careers to pursue a PGA TOUR card. Matsuyama took a different path by coming to the United States in his first pro season.

    “If I would have just stayed in Japan, I don’t think my golf game would have improved as much as it has,” Matsuyama told the Associated Press at the WGC-HSBC Champions. “I needed to go out. I needed to go to America. Winning this week proves to me that I did make the right decision.”

    The transition to the United States can be a difficult one, not only because of the differences in culture, food (Ozaki traveled to the United States with a personal chef) and language. Different grasses and course conditioning require Japanese players to develop different shots than those necessary in the United States.

    “To come over and get comfortable – not just in the United States, but around the world like (Matsuyama) has done – I think it’s a testament to his strength of will and character,” said Golf Channel commentator and former World No. 1 David Duval.

    Jordan Spieth admires the same trait in his peer. Spieth finished a shot behind a victorious Matsuyama in the 2014 Dunlop Phoenix in Japan.

    “The way he stalks his shots and putts, his demeanor going into each shot, there’s supreme focus there,” said the 2015 FedExCup champion. “A lot of times you see guys get lazy stepping into shots. You don’t see that from him.”

    Matsuyama also is one of the TOUR's best ballstrikers. Last season, he ranked third in strokes gained: approach-the-green (+0.774). He's hit 77.8 percent of greens in regulation, which translates to 14 per round.

    Those are impressive statistics considering Matsuyama doesn't work with a swing coach. He got early guidance from his father Mikio, a former scratch golfer. Hideki's trademark pause at the top of his swing was born out of attempts to create a slow, controlled backswing.

    "I thought about raising (the club) slowly," he said. "I think it's OK because I couldn't fix it even though I attempted to."

    Matsuyama uses video to compare his swing to other players' actions.

    "Tiger has always been the example that I have tried to follow and emulate, the way that he swings the golf club," Matsuyama told PGATOUR.COM in 2013.

    Like so many players from his generation, Matsuyama was greatly impacted by Tiger Woods’ 12-shot win at the 1997 Masters.

    “From the day I was born, I really liked Tiger Woods,” Matsuyama said. “I videotaped (the 1997 Masters) and I watched that video over and over and over again.”

    Ozaki didn’t have the same desire. “In my generation, to be No. 1 in Japan was the major goal,” Ozaki said in a 1998 Sports Illustrated profile.

    He became Japan’s Arnold Palmer, a legendary player beloved by the fans. He won the Japan Open five times and was a six-time winner of the Japan PGA Championship. He won his final Japan Tour title at age 55 and was the Japan Tour’s leading money winner 12 times.

    He was a colorful character, as well. He played his guitar and sang on three singles that hit Japan’s pop charts in the 1980s. He was known for a colorful wardrobe and aggressive play, as well as his collections of classic cars and vintage wines.

    Ozaki was inside the top 10 of the Official World Golf Ranking for nearly 200 weeks, several of those while he was in his 50s. He played in just 85 PGA TOUR events, compiling just three top-10s. He said he didn’t feel the same “fire” as he felt at home when he competed in the United States.

    Major goals

    Matusyama began competing in the States before he turned pro. He twice won the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, which allowed him to play in the Masters as an amateur. He made the cut both times, and has finished in the top seven at the past two Masters. He’s said that he would like to emulate Woods by winning his first major at Augusta National.

    Matsuyama earned his PGA TOUR card, and qualified for the Presidents Cup, in just a half-dozen PGA TOUR starts in 2013. He won his first PGA TOUR title at the 2014 Memorial presented by Nationwide, then claimed last year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open. He and Rickie Fowler both birdied TPC Scottsdale’s 18th before Matsuyama won on the fourth playoff hole.

    “(Hideki) takes it very seriously. He has big dreams. I like that about him,” said Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion who has partnered with Matsuyama at the past two Presidents Cups.

    Now he has his eyes on the majors and FedExCup. He isn’t afraid to dream big, though. That’s what led him to travel to a new continent in search of golfing glory.

    Sean Martin manages PGATOUR.COM’s staff of writers as the Lead, Editorial. He covered all levels of competitive golf at Golfweek Magazine for seven years, including tournaments on four continents, before coming to the PGA TOUR in 2013. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.

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