Dan Murphy charts the rise of Hideki Matsuyama, a reluctant hero but a golfer who has changed preconceptions about his country’s golfing credentials
Walk into the media centre at any major championship and there is a phalanx of Japanese videographers, photographers and writers.
Their interest in the event in its broadest sense is limited. They are there to bring news of their home stars.
At the Open Championship, that might typically include four or five players. With respect, not all would be expected to make the weekend, let alone be contenders for the Claret Jug.
No, pretty much ever since Hideki Matsuyama turned professional in 2013, those chroniclers of Japanese golf have travelled to America and the United Kingdom with the sole intention of tracking his every move.
We in the western world might not realise it, but the scrutiny Matsuyama has had to become used is on a level that perhaps only Tiger Woods in the modern era is familiar with.
He has proved himself to be the first truly world-class male Japanese golfer. (It is a different story in women’s golf, where Chako Higuchi won the LPGA Championship as long ago as 1977, and Hinako Shibuno took the 2019 Women’s British Open at Woburn.)
In the 1980s and 1990s there was Jumbo Ozaki, a fixture in the upper reaches of the world rankings but with a playing record that only bore scrutiny on his home tour, where he won 94 times. When he played in America and Europe, he was looked on with curiosity but something short of due respect for such a serial winner.
Ahead of him came Isao Aoki, who did win once on the PGA Tour, in Hawaii, and also finished second at the 1980 US Open, to a certain Jack Nicklaus.
Briefly, back in the last 2000s, Ryo Ishikawa threatened to become Japan’s first household name in golf. ‘The Bashful Prince’ was a pop star in his homeland and playing on the PGA Tour by the time he was 18. He’s still is his 20s now, but trying to rebuild his career back home.
Still the doubts persisted that, in the men’s game at least, Japanese players could truly mix it with the best.
Matsuyama has changed all that.
Even before the 29-year-old’s Masters heroics, he had well and truly earned the respect of the notoriously insular PGA Tour commentariat.
With top-six finishes in all four majors, and a career-high world ranking of No 2, in 2017, Matsuyama has been a genuine contender for several years now.
His first Masters was back in 2011, as the Asia-Pacific Amateur champion, and he duly claimed the low-am honours with a precociously high finish of T27.
This was his 10th Masters, and he has missed only one cut in that time. Prior to this year’s crowning glory, there had already been two top-10s among five finishes of 13th or better.
Until now, Matsuyama, who has been playing on the PGA Tour since 2013, had saved his best stuff for 2017.
That year saw the most recent – prior to landing the Masters – of his five PGA Tour wins. One was his second successive Phoenix Open and the other a truly dominant performance at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. He closed with a course-record 61 to blitz the field by five at Firestone.
In between times, he finished runner-up to Brooks Koepka in the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills and in doing so climbed to World No 2.
After the WGC win, he headed straight to Quail Hollow for the PGA Championship at the top of his game. He was a stroke off the lead heading into the final round, where he was paired with Justin Thomas.
He hit the front at the turn only to make five bogeys in his last eight holes and finish in a tie for fifth. There was a first-time major winner that week from that penultimate pairing but Matsuyama had to watch Thomas lift the prize he had set his sights on.
At the Masters last week, and not for the first time, Matsuyama was the only Japanese player in the field.
He went into the tournament ranked 25 in the world. The next best Japanese player was Shugo Imahira at 82. Then Takumi Kanaya at 116th and the aforementioned Ishikawa, who was 130th.
Carrying the hopes of your nation is not always easy for an introvert.
The Japanese media only found out that Matsuyama was married when he revealed that he and his wife were expecting a daughter. While they respect his privacy, they also wish he would be a little less guarded. As a major champion now, he may have little choice.
When a storm forced the players off the course for an hour on Saturday, Matsuyama went back to his car and played on his phone. He returned to complete a back nine of 30 that simply blew away the field, much like his 61 at Bridgestone had four years ago.
A four-shot lead heading into the final round of the Masters is far from a guarantee of victory. Matsuyama would have seen that on his Augusta debut, when Rory McIlroy unravelled and didn’t even make the top 10 when all was said and done.
Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to Matsuyama, whose last name is the town he was born in, is that he rarely looked like surrendering his advantage. In fact, he looked dead-set on extending it. On the 13th, when five clear of the field, he hit driver off the tee when 3-wood would surely have been more circumspect and then took on the green from the rough when laying up seemed the only sensible option. The drive bounced out of the trees and the approach thumped into the bank just in front of the Azalea bushes. An up-and-down birdie duly followed.
Even as late as the 15th, he was still pushing, sending his second shot bounding into the water beyond the green and in front of the 16th tee. If it was curious course management, it at least displayed positive intent. Briefly, the lead was down to two.
Xander Schauffele, however, could only follow four successive birdies by making a total nonsense of the 16th. Matsuyama’s serenity was restored. It was as near as he came to a wobble and within an hour, he was being helped into that precious Green Jacket.
Back in the Land of the Rising Sun, it was just getting light in Tokyo. Whether he likes it or not, the glare of publicity is now well and truly on Hideki Matsuyama.