THE PRESIDENTS CUP
Presidents Cup Insider: Unlocking Matsuyama's potential will be key
October 22, 2019
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
Hideki Matsuyama's journey to the PGA TOUR
In order to beat the U.S. for the first time since 1998, the International Team will need to get the maximum performance from each of its 12 players.
And in order to get the maximum out of Hideki Matsuyama, the Internationals may want to find a partner he can talk to. Literally.
Of the Internationals’ eight automatic qualifiers, seven are proficient in English. Matsuyama, the five-time PGA TOUR winner ranked world No. 27, is committed to improving his English but primarily communicates in the language of his native land, Japan.
“I am the only guy on the team who doesn’t speak English or is a native English speaker,” Matsuyama said recently through his interpreter. “I am trying, though. I am doing my best to keep learning English and to communicate well.”
Golf, you may argue, is a universal language, but when it comes to team events – especially with partnerships in the Four-balls and Foursomes matches – it helps to speak the same language. It’s a challenge the Americans have never had to face during their domination of the event.
While Matsuyama’s desire to learn a second language is admirable, it is not fair to expect him to do so. It shouldn’t be a requirement to level the playing field, and the 27-year-old Matsuyama – who is about to suit up for his fourth Presidents Cup -- will be one of the International Team’s vital cogs for many more years. He is a world-class player for a world-wide event, and the Internationals are fortunate to have him.
But despite having skills that few can match, his potential in the team competition has not been fully unlocked.
How can you create the best team effort with a partner who you cannot fully understand?
“I don't know how I would do that. I've never thought of that before and would think that is very, very difficult, especially on a tough day,” U.S. team member Justin Thomas said. “On a good day it's easy because you just stay out of each other's way and keep making birdies, but when stuff's going tough, I would have to imagine that's very difficult.
“It would be a lot harder because for me in particular, I kind of feed off of being able to boost my partner up and especially when things aren't going well, kind of say things to try to motivate him or kind of get together and try to motivate us or get the good momentum going.”
That begs the question: Should one of Ernie Els’ four captains picks be specifically geared towards Matsuyama? Would looking at a Japanese-speaking partner help ensure much-needed points in Foursomes and Four-ball?
The question is particularly relevant this week at the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP. It’s the first official PGA TOUR event in Japan, and the field list includes Matsuyama and eight other Japanese players – any one of whom would love to partner with Matsuyama at Royal Melbourne this December.
History suggests that a Japanese-speaking partnership may be beneficial to the Internationals.
In his Presidents Cup debut in 2013, a young Matsuyama partnered with veteran Adam Scott of Australia and they managed to go 1-2-1 in the team portion of the competition.
On the Range
Hideki Matsuyama's pre-round warm-up routine
They rejoined early in the 2015 Presidents Cup in Korea but were soundly beaten on the opening day. That prompted a reshuffle, with Korean Sangmoon Bae taking over as Matsuyama’s partner. Bae understands Japanese and can converse in the language. It proved a big difference as the pair halved a Foursomes match Saturday morning before winning their afternoon Four-ball match 6 and 5.
Two years later Matsuyama entered the Presidents Cup as the top-ranked International player but was left without a partner he could understand when fellow Japanese player Hideto Tanihara was not selected as a captain’s pick despite being 12th on the points list.
Partnerships with Charl Schwartzel, Adam Hadwin and Jhonattan Vegas were unable to secure wins in New Jersey as part of a heavy defeat to the Americans.
“I think it is very important to consider another Japanese player,” Scott said. “Hideki is one of the best players on our team, so we must get the best out of him. We need to look at every way possible to do that.
“Hideki clearly has performed the best with Sangmoon and he can speak Japanese. I think that is a big thing for Hideki. His English is not great so it is helpful for him to feel more like part of a team if he can converse in Japanese.”
There was hope that PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year winner Sungjae Im, a Korean who spent time on the Japanese Tour, might be the perfect pick this time around to team up with Matsuyama. But although he did play in Japan, Im is not proficient in the language.
So who does that leave for Els to look at?
The next highest-ranked Japanese player in the world is Shugo Imahira at 52nd. He has finished inside the top 13 of his last eight events on the Japan Tour, including a recent win at the Bridgestone Open.
Behind him is Rikuya Hoshino at 103rd and former Presidents Cup player Ryo Ishikawa at 104th. Ishikawa – who played 145 PGA TOUR events between 2009-2017 with 11 top-10s and two runner ups – is in the midst of a resurgence. He has five top 10s in his last nine starts on the Japan Tour including two wins.
Ishikawa played for the Internationals in 2009 and 2011 at Royal Melbourne and his overall record is a winning one at 5-4-0. He has also teamed up with Matsuyama before in the World Cup. If it’s a bold pick with a high upside, Ishikawa might be the guy.
Another to consider is 2018 RBC Heritage winner Satoshi Kodaira, although his form in 2019 has slipped, with a T19 recently in Japan his best worldwide result throughout the calendar year.
Imahira, Hoshino, Ishikawa and Kodaira are all on display this week at the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP. So too are other Japanese players -- Tomoharu Otsuki, Yosuke Asaji, Mikumu Horikawa and Jinichiro Kozuma.
They might want to hang out with Matsuyama in the clubhouse and plead their case.
Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond (world no.59) plays in Japan and all over Asia but is not fluent in the language. Perhaps one from left field is Australian Brendan Jones. This 44-year-old is a veteran of the Japan Tour and has won 15 times there, including in April this year. He has both a grasp of Japanese and Royal Melbourne.
Matsuyama is not the first player from Japan to play in the Presidents Cup. In fact, in 1998, Shigeki Maruyama and Naomichi "Joe" Ozaki were both on the only International Team to win the Presidents Cup. Maruyama was the best player that week, winning all five of his matches – including two with Ozaki as his Four-ball partner. In his two Foursomes wins, he partnered with Australian Craig Parry, who was a member of the Japan Tour at the time.
There were no language issues that week. Everyone understands winning.
From his perspective, Matsuyama stopped short of blaming language barriers for any of his Presidents Cup struggles but acknowledged he’d love the help.
“I don’t know if it’s been a big problem in the past, but I do know it would be a big help to be able to communicate better,” he said. “Of course I have paired with fellow Japanese players in the World Cup – Ryo Ishikawa – and it was easy to play together, but in the Presidents Cup I haven’t had that luxury yet.
“If someone was picked that did speak my language, I’d be very happy.”
Regardless if he is given his wish, Matsuyama is motivated to bring his best to Melbourne. He knows he cannot just sit quietly in the corner of the team room.
“Language might be a problem in terms of being a leader but hopefully I can lead by example with my clubs,” Matsuyama said. “It is such a special week and I hope I can give some advice and inspire the younger guys through my play, through my preparation and being a good part of the team room.
“I really hope we can win and I hope it happens mostly for our captain Ernie and for Adam. They have been around the longest and they were there when we last had any success so to win the Presidents Cup would be amazing for myself, for Japan and for the International team but I mostly want to win it for them.”