Japan’s Focus is on Its Next Rising Star

With a PGA Tour win under his belt in 2014, and a top-10 finish in last year's U.S. Open, Hideki Matsuyama currently represents Japan's best chance at producing a major champion. (USGA/Hunter Martin)

With a PGA Tour win under his belt in 2014, and a top-10 finish in last year's U.S. Open, Hideki Matsuyama currently represents Japan's best chance at producing a major champion. (USGA/Hunter Martin)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

By Stuart Hall

VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – Hideki Matsuyama completed his U.S. Open debut last year on Merion Golf Club’s brutish East Course with a sterling final-round 3-under 67 and satisfying 10th-place tie.

Afterward, Matsuyama shuttled over to the West Course locker room, gathered his belongings and headed toward his car and his next destination. Before leaving the grounds, though, he spotted a quiet practice area and went to work on his chipping and putting.

So with twilight approaching and Englishman Justin Rose finishing off his masterful and emotional victory, Matsuyama, 22, of Ehime, Japan, was refining his craft in solitude and in the hopes that he may one day win his own major title.

The next opportunity for Matsuyama, No. 13 in the Official World Golf Ranking, is this week’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2.

“He absolutely loves to play the game of golf,” said Bob Turner, who manages Matsuyama’s affairs and serves as his translator.

In fact, stories of Matsuyama’s devotion to golf are commonplace.

Following his 19th-place finish at last year’s PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., Matsuyama opted out of a sightseeing tour of New York City and headed directly to Greensboro, N.C., to begin preparation for the following week’s Wyndham Championship.

Here in Pinehurst on Monday night, he asked caddie and friend Daisuke Shindo to force him to stop Tuesday’s practice round after nine holes to help conserve his energy.

Matsuyama has already logged 36 holes around the 7,562-yard Donald Ross design since last Wednesday.

“I have not learned to like it yet, but it’s a tough golf course,” Matsuyama said.

Blessed with boyish enthusiasm and obvious skills, Matsuyama represents one of Japan’s best opportunities to win a U.S. Open since the days of Isao Aoki, who finished second to Jack Nicklaus in 1980 at Baltusrol Country Club. Since 1970, only four players from Japan have managed to crack the top 10 in the U.S. Open: Matsuyama, Aoki, Tommy Nakajima (1987, ninth-place tie) and Jumbo Ozaki (1989, sixth-place tie).

Also representing Japan this week will be elder statesman Toru Taniguchi, 46, a 19-time winner on the Japan Tour who has made one cut in eight U.S. Open starts since 2001; Azuma Yano, who tied for 27th in 2009, the first of his two U.S. Open appearances; and 37-year-old Kiyoshi Miyazato, the brother of LPGA standout Ai Miyazato, who is making his U.S. Open debut.

The nation’s eyes, though, will be focused on Matsuyama, and with good reason.

In six previous major-championship starts, Matsuyama has made five cuts. He was the low amateur in the 2011 Masters, tying for 27th. In last year’s final three majors, he finished tied for 10th (U.S. Open), sixth (British Open) and 19th (PGA Championship). He also qualified for the 2013 International Team that lost in the Presidents Cup at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio.

Eight months after going 1-3-1 in the International Team’s three-point loss, Matsuyama gained some personal redemption at Jack Nicklaus’ home course, winning the Memorial Tournament in a playoff over Kevin Na.

“I have been in contention, but I guess the difference at the Memorial was that all parts of my game came together,” Matsuyama said. “It wasn’t perfect golf, but it was the best I could do.”

There was also the comfort of being paired with 33-year-old Adam Scott, of Australia, the 2013 Masters champion, in the Memorial’s final round. Scott and Matsuyama were partnered for four matches at the Presidents Cup, going 1-2-1, but developing a strong friendship. Today, Matsuyama considers Scott a mentor.

“It was a godsend because I think it really helped being paired with someone he knew and got along well with,” said Turner of the Memorial. “We’ll see how he progresses, because a boost in a player’s confidence after a win is priceless.”

Matsuyama has also gained the respect and friendship of one of America’s top young talents, 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, a PGA Tour winner himself and the world’s 10th-ranked player. 

“He’s got an incredible game,” said Spieth, who was paired with Matsuyama at Merion and will be again on Thursday and Friday. “Everyone saw it a couple of weeks ago. He was able to win one of the most prestigious PGA Tour events of the year at Jack's place. He's got it all.”

Matsuyama has displayed that innate talent since an early age.

In 2010, Matsuyama raised eyebrows by winning the Asia Pacific Amateur and becoming the first Japanese amateur to compete in the Masters. He finished as low amateur and a year later made a second successive cut at Augusta National Golf Club, becoming the first amateur to make consecutive cuts since Manny Zerman in 1991-92. By August 2012, Matsuyama was the world’s No. 1-ranked amateur, and he turned professional the following April.

Matsuyama won twice within five weeks en route to becoming the first rookie to win the Japan Golf Tour’s Order of Merit. He earned PGA Tour playing privileges for 2014.

Turner said that Matsuyama, who still considers Ehime his home and lives out of a suitcase while in the U.S., is adapting. He travels with Shindo and his personal trainer, Misuteru Iida, and as long as there is a Starbucks nearby, then life can’t be so bad.

“The cultural difference is not that big of a deal, it’s more of the language,” Matsuyama said. “I haven’t learned a whole lot of English yet, but everyone has been kind and welcoming and hospitable, so I really have no excuses not to do well.”

It will certainly not be for a lack of trying. 

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA championship websites.

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