Hideki Matsuyama in happy place at ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIPWin, runner-up finish in last two starts at Narashino Country Club
October 11, 2022
By Kevin Prise , PGATOUR.COM
Hideki Matsuyama’s Round 4 highlights from ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP
Hideki Matsuyama is at home.
After finishing his range session at the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP on Tuesday, the Japan native spotted a tray of sushi adjacent to the practice area, made a beeline for a quick a bite, and smiled with approval. Matsuyama couldn’t look more comfortable at Japan’s Accordia Golf Narashino CC, where he won the 2021 ZOZO by five and now returns to defend his title.
Not all title defenses are created equal, and being in his home country carries extra weight. What’s more, the list of ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP winners in Japan is short: Tiger Woods, who won his record-tying 82nd PGA TOUR title at Narashino in 2019 (Matsuyama was second), and Matsuyama last year. Many pundits have him raising the trophy again this week.
Japan’s most accomplished male golfer came home energized after last month’s Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow, where the International Team displayed a close-knit, fighting spirit despite a loss to the U.S. Team. This will mark Matsuyama’s first start since then as he aims to add to his eight TOUR titles and build on an 11th-place finish on last season’s FedExCup.
Hideki Matsuyama drains 16-footer to win hole at Presidents Cup
“The energy that the fans provide really helps out, it helps my game, but on the other hand, there’s pressure that goes along with it,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve been really impressed the last couple days … practice days, but still lots of members of the gallery have come out and cheered us on. Hopefully I can play my best and give everyone someone to root for.
“Winning is always the No. 1 goal, and hopefully I can do that here this week.”
Woods and Matsuyama each won the Masters and ZOZO in the same year; Matsuyama, ever a student of the game, noted this after his 2021 ZOZO victory. His triumph was all the sweeter after a near-miss at a medal at the Tokyo Olympics, where he had come up just short in a 7-for-1 playoff for the bronze.
“Hideki has said for a long time, ‘I want to win ZOZO, I want to win in Japan,’” said Shota Hayafuji, Matsuyama’s longtime caddie. “And to be able to do that after arriving in Japan on Tuesday, dealing with the time change and all the pressure, and to be able to overcome that, that was something only he could do.
“Probably 99 percent of the fans (in 2021) were rooting for him to win. There’s no doubt that had a huge effect on him, and to be able to win in front of them made it that much more enjoyable.”
Matsuyama has become not just one of Japan’s golf heroes, but also an icon in the country’s larger sporting culture. He grew up in Matsuyama, Ehime, Japan, and was introduced to golf by his dad at age 4, eventually becoming so infatuated with the game he transferred schools in eighth grade to facilitate the best possible training environment.
His breakout moment was a win at the 2010 Asian Amateur, which earned him a spot in the 2011 Masters, becoming the first Japanese amateur to take that route to Augusta National. He made the cut, a harbinger of things to come. Matsuyama reached No. 1 on the World Amateur Golf Ranking in 2012 and joined the PGA TOUR in 2013 – he proudly noted his near-decade on TOUR in Tuesday’s press conference in Narashino.
After winning twice in his first three full seasons, Matsuyama reached another level with his three-victory season in 2017. Then came another level still. After winning the 2021 Masters, where Hayafuji memorably bowed on the 72nd green, Matsuyama was effusive in expressing his hopes to lift up Japanese golf culture.
Hideki Matsuyama's journey to the PGA TOUR
“I hope I become a pioneer for many other Japanese to follow,” he said at the time. “In the meantime, I will try to win more.”
In the eyes of Japanese golf legend Isao Aoki, a World Golf Hall of Fame member who won 51 times on the Japan Golf Tour and finished runner-up at the 1980 U.S. Open, Matsuyama is already a pioneer.
“He won the Masters, then returned to Japan and won ZOZO,” said Aoki. “That will have a huge and positive impact on golf in Japan. Younger generations in Japan will be inspired by his victories at the Masters and ZOZO, and it will motivate them to work even harder.
“Although golf has and will continue to evolve over time,” Aoki continued, “it’s amazing to see how Hideki has been able to adapt to everything.”
Matsuyama has also been resilient. After becoming the first from his country to win the Masters he desperately wanted to medal at the Covid-delayed Tokyo Olympics. When he failed to do so, he briefly let his guard down. “I have no endurance or energy left at this point,” he said. “But I kept fighting at the end with my heart. Unfortunately, I fell short at the end.”
It had been a year of emotional extremes, and it wasn’t over. Less than three months after the Olympics, his fortunes turned once again at the ZOZO, where Matsuyama hit a 3-wood to 12 feet on the 72nd hole for a closing eagle.
“It was one of my biggest goals to win in front of the Japanese fans here in this country,” he said in his winner’s press conference. “So happy that I’ll be able to accomplish that. Also, in 2019 Tiger (Woods) won the Masters and went on to win the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP, so I’m glad I will be able to emulate that as well.
“The fans were rooting for me and they were behind me, so I’m glad that I was able to convert that energy from the crowd.”
For Matsuyama in Japan, the energy always renews.