‘If I say there’s no pressure, I’ll be lying’Hideki Matsuyama’s gold medal quest gets off to slow start
July 29, 2021
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Hideki Matsuyama | The Hideki Effect
KAWAGOE, Japan – There’s often an attempt to place Hideki Matsuyama’s achievements in a larger context, to discuss not just his play but also what it means for his home country of Japan. It’s an easy story, especially for English-speaking media, about a man who uses few words in any language.
Matsuyama is not a man on a mission, however. Becoming an evangelist whose pulpit is the putting green has never been his goal. He did not leave his homeland nearly a decade ago in order to grow the game in Japan, nor does he keep long hours on the driving range for that purpose. Matsuyama crossed the Pacific Ocean at age 21 to play the PGA TOUR because he wanted to compete at the highest level. The impact position of his famously methodical swing is more important to him than his impact on golf’s popularity in his homeland.
The Olympics are different than any other golf tournament, however. The majors may be of greater importance to most golfers, but at least there are four of them a year. Miss at the Masters and there’s another opportunity a month later.
The Olympics only happen once every four years, however. Matsuyama recognizes that this week is unique, describing a home Olympics as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“If I say there’s no pressure, I’ll be lying,” he said. There are no spectators at Kasumigaseki Country Club this week, but he was still followed by about 100 people after teeing off Thursday. It was by far the biggest gallery.
Many were volunteers clad in matching blue shirts and gray pants. And Matsuyama was reunited with the throng of Japanese media that documents his every move and enquires about every hole. They’ve been absent from the United States since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and this is Matsuyama’s first competition in Japan in some 18 months.
Shigeki Maruyama, the four-time TOUR winner who’s serving as Japan’s Olympic coach, said Matsuyama usually “plays much more comfortably” than he did Thursday. His recent COVID-19 diagnosis only complicated things, interrupting Matsuyama’s preparations for this week.
“He really likes this course and has special memories, but not being 100% because of what happened in summer, I feel bad for Hideki,” Maruyama said.
Matsuyama won the 2009 Japan Junior at Kasumigaseki, then returned a year later to claim the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, a win that netted him his first Masters invitation. His win this year at Augusta National, which made him the first Japanese man to win a major, only heightened the expectations for this week. Green and gold perfectly complement each other. Matsuyama hasn’t finished better than T23 in four starts since the Masters, though. He named that as another source of anxiety.
"Since my Masters win, I haven't had the best results so far this summer, so I'm a little bit nervous,” he said in his pre-tournament press conference.
His 69 in a low-scoring opening to the Olympics left him six shots behind Austria’s Sepp Straka. Matsuyama, who’s tied for 20th, is four back of bronze.
After making birdie on half of his first eight holes, Matsuyama was 2 over par the rest of the way.
Maruyama said Matsuyama’s endurance is “night and day” since he contracted COVID-19. Matsuyama had to withdraw from the Rocket Mortgage Classic four weeks ago because of his positive test and also withdrew from The Open Championship. This was his first competitive round since the opening day of the Rocket Mortgage Classic four weeks ago.
When asked the most difficult part of competing after such a long layoff, Matsuyama said that his focus faded towards the end of his round. Thursday’s high temperatures only made that task harder.
The Games have been played under the shadow of COVID-19, but on the field these Olympics have been a success for the host country. As of Thursday evening, Japan’s 13 gold medals were tied with the United States for the second-most (one behind China).
But Japan also has seen one of its star athletes struggle with the pressure of competing at home. Naomi Osaka, who lit the Olympic flame in the opening ceremonies, lost in the third round of the women’s tennis tournament.
“I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this,” she said. Like Matsuyama, Osaka was competing after a lengthy hiatus. The Olympics were her first competition since she withdrew from the French Open in June to cope with her mental health.
Unlike tennis, Matsuyama has the opportunity to recover from a tough day. Three rounds remain as he tries to win another medal for Japan.