PGA Championship 2017: Hideki Matsuyama is on the cusp of history, a Major title would make him Japan's greatest

Hideki Matsuyama is a master of the understatement and a lesson in humility. On the golf course, he is a class act. You could add poise and momentum to that.

He is 25 and one of the best golfers in the world. He is no flash in the pan — he has five PGA Tour wins, two of which are World Golf Championship titles, and on the Japan Tour, he has eight wins, the first of which came as an amateur at the 19.

From the time he moved from amateur to paid ranks as a professional, he has shown progress in every year-end Official World Golf Rankings – 23 (in 2013); 16 (2014); 15 (2015); 6 (2016) and he is currently No 3. He was No 2 for a couple of weeks in June-July. No 1 is within his grasp.

Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, hits his tee shot on the ninth hole during the third round of the PGA Championship. AP

Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, hits his tee shot on the ninth hole during the third round of the PGA Championship. AP

Since October, in 20 starts, Matsuyama has six wins — two on the Japan Tour, the Hero World Challenge (an unofficial PGA Tour event) and three PGA Tour titles, which includes WGC-HSBC and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. That’s not all; he has four more top-10s and five more top-25s in that period. There was a time, when from the T-5 at the 2016 Tour Championships on PGA in the last week of September to second place at the SBS Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in the first week of January, 2017, he had seven straight Top-5s, the last six of which had included four wins and two second places.

In 18 Majors as a pro — he also played the Masters twice as an amateur — he has made 15 cuts; logged six Top-10s; another five Top-20s and four other finishes in Top-40. Anytime he has made the cut, he has not finished worse than T-39. Put that down as a picture of consistency.

But, Jordan Spieth, 24, and Rory McIlroy, now 28, had at least three Majors before they turned 25. Matsuyama has none. That could change this Sunday, or Monday, if the weather Gods so ordain.

Matsuyama can win from the front and he can rally from behind. And when he is on a hot streak in a round, there are few things that can stop him. Deep and often bogey-free rounds highlight his wins or near-wins. Like at WGC (61 for win) last week, or the US Open (66 for T-2), Waste Management Phoenix Open (66 for win), WGC-HSBC (66 for win) and CIMB (66 for T-2).

On Friday, he shot a bogey-free seven-under 64 to take a share of the lead. Before the rains forced a stoppage on Friday, Matsuyama was on a tear. He had already had five birdies and now had three holes left. Asked if he thought his momentum might be broken, he said, “I was surprised at the rain delay, because the weather looked good to me. But I was grateful for the rain delay because I was getting tired. I was able to lay down in the locker room and get some rest.”

That’s poise and a Matsuyama mantra.

Last year in December 2016, when Matsuyama was running away with the Hero World Challenge against a world-class field — he was seven shots ahead after three rounds — he shot 73 in the final, but still won by two. That was his fourth win in five starts and so the question, “would he  wish that Augusta was the following week”, Hideki smiled and said through his interpreter, Bob Turner, “I'm kind of glad it's not next week because I don't think I could win next week. Starting next week all my focus and preparation will be for the Masters. Hopefully, along the way I can play well on the PGA Tour, but the Masters is my next goal.”

That’s acceptance and another Matsuyama mantra.

At the same conference in Bahamas, he was asked, if may well be the best Japanese player of all time? Matsuyama replied with that ever-present smile, “There's been some great golfers in Japan. Just to name a few, Jumbo Ozaki, Isao Aoki, Shigeki Maruyama, Tsuneyuki Nakajima. And to be able to follow in their footsteps is a great honor. And then to come to the PGA Tour and learn from really the best golfers in the world, it's really helped my game. I'm grateful for all of their help. But to answer your question, I'm not the greatest golfer from Japan.”

So, what will make you the greatest golfer from Japan? “You know, Jumbo won a hundred times, so unless I win a hundred times, I wouldn't be greater than Jumbo.”

Last night, on Friday at his crowded press conference, he admitted, “This is my first experience leading a Major, or tied for the lead after 36 holes. And so being a new ­experience, maybe I’ll be a little ­nervous, but on the other hand, I’m looking forward to the weekend and seeing how I do.”

Again, the question, what would a Major win mean for him and Japanese golf? “Even Mr Jumbo, Mr Aoki, Mr Nakajima and Mr Maruyama weren’t able to win at the majors. So I know I will have to work hard in an attempt to achieve that.”

That’s humility and yet another Matsuyama mantra.

Going back to the Bahamas press conference with Matsuyama, he revealed that he first watched Tiger Woods, when the latter was winning the 1997 Masters — Matsuyama was five. He also said that it was his father, Mikio, a two-handicapper, who taught him the basic of the game, but he is largely self-taught, though he does have Pete Cowen as his swing coach. The parting question: when did he first beat his father? The answer: “I don't remember. Even if I did, he was always better than I was in my mind, but hopefully he'll be proud of me now.”

That’s respect and yet another Matsuyama mantra.

All the answers come through Bob Turner, who has made a  career interpreting English-to-Japanese and the reverse for Japanese golfers, athletes and businessmen. He is great, but it would be even better to get the nuanced answers from Matsuyama straight.

Last week, when Matsuyama won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with a stunning final round of 61, among the things he was asked, was the difficulties, he had faced while adjusting to a new country (USA) and adapting to culture and language and if it had impacted his golf?

The answer, through Bob, of course, was, “There's been a lot of different things. The English especially is — I would love to be able to speak with all of you right now and I wouldn't need Bob; and every day would be no stress and I could enjoy life and everything and get to know everybody. How that converted over to good golf, I don't know if it helped or not, but I do look forward to the day that I can converse with all of you in English.” Be sure that his English, when it is ready, will be as deep and profound as his game is.

That’s class and yet another Matsuyama mantra.

Add a Major trophy, and it will be the complete package. Till then, let’s enjoy Hideki Matsuyama for what he is and where he is — currently on the cusp of history.


Published Date: Aug 13, 2017 02:25 pm | Updated Date: Aug 13, 2017 02:25 pm


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