As Hideki Matsuyama stroked putts on the large practice putting green adjacent to the first tee at Erin Hills Wednesday morning, a phalanx of media from his native Japan began to gather in anticipation of following him for his last practice round prior to the start Thursday of the 117th U.S. Open.
Matsuyama is used to this by now. At No. 4 in the world and winner of four PGA Tour titles, the 25-year-old golfer has been a phenomenon since he turned professional in 2011, the year he won the first of his eight titles on the Japan Tour, while still an amateur. The only thing that would make him a bigger deal is winning a major championship, and that almost seems inevitable with the game he has displayed this season.
Three wins around the beginning of the year, including the WGC-HSBC Champions in China, the first Asian-born player to capture that title, propelled him into the top 10 in the world, and he has continued to rise, even as his game hasn’t been quite as sharp. He hasn’t had a top-10 finish since defending his title at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February. He did have a tie for 11th at the Masters thanks to a closing 5-under 67.
“It’s the same thing you see with a lot of good players. They win a few and then they tinker trying to get better,” said Bob Turner, who travels with Matsuyama as his interpreter. “But he’s figuring things out and he feels good about this week.”
There are five Japanese players in the field this week, including Hideto Tanihara, who is ranked No. 48 in the world. But Matsuyama receives most of the coverage from his compatriots in the media. “He is the best player Japan has ever had, so he is very popular at home,” said Eiko Oizumi of Golf Today Japan, based in Tokyo. “We have never had a Japanese player win a major, but everyone thinks Hideki will be the first.”
Oizumi said Matsuyama can at times be reticent, but Turner explains that he is merely shy. “He didn’t understand what it was all about, why they always wanted to talk to him. But now he knows whether he shoots 67 or 77 they will want to interview him.”
Though he hasn’t been sharp lately, Matsuyama is looking forward to this week’s test. He begins his championship at 9:51 a.m. Thursday with Rickie Fowler and Jon Rahm, also ranked in the top 10 in the world.
“I like the golf course. It’s a second-shot golf course, so the important thing is to keep it in play off the tee and avoid the high rough,” he said via Turner. “I’m working on a lot of things and going through the process of getting better. I’m looking forward to playing, but there are no guarantees of getting in contention or top 10 or whatever. I just hope I play well and see what happens.”
Whether he plays well or not, he knows one thing – he’ll be popular with the media after he signs his card.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to USGA websites.