On Golf: Japan’s Best Golfer? With a Smile, Hideki Matsuyama Begs to Differ


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Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama captured a two-stroke victory over Sweden’s Henrik Stenson on Sunday at the Hero World Challenge, his third consecutive title and his fourth in his past five starts.

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Christian Petersen/Getty Images

NASSAU, the Bahamas — The Hero World Challenge is held in a luxury oceanfront resort community where the fish are as plentiful as birdies. But for Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, it perhaps got lost in translation that the tournament is not an official PGA Tour event and not meant to be agonized over.

After finishing his Wednesday pro-am round, Matsuyama was the last player on the practice green. The overtime work that Matsuyama put in paid off. He used his putter to seal a two-stroke victory over Sweden’s Henrik Stenson at Albany Golf Club for his third consecutive title and his fourth in his past five starts.

Matsuyama, 24, has quietly put together a closing stretch that calls to mind Tiger Woods’s performance at the same age. Since his fifth-place finish at the Tour Championship in September, Matsuyama has won the Japan Open, placed second in the CIMB Classic in Malaysia and captured the World Golf Championships event in Shanghai, the Taiheiyo Masters on the Japan Tour — and now this event, impressing the host, Woods, who knows from hot streaks. Between January 2000 and his 25th birthday that December, Woods won nine PGA Tour events, including three majors.

“It’s going to give him a boatload of confidence going into next year,” Woods said, “and he’s going to be one of the top guys to beat for a very long time.”

The tournament’s last 20-something winner, Jordan Spieth in 2014, used the result — also his third win in a row — as a trampoline to make an impressive career jump. The next year, Spieth captured two majors and player of the year honors and vaulted from ninth to first in the world rankings.

“He’s on an awesome run right now,” said Spieth, who is ranked fifth in the world and has Matsuyama breathing down his neck at No. 6. Spieth added: “He’s got all the keys. I think he’ll be a major champion within the next couple years.”

Matsuyama’s best chance may be at the Masters, where he made the cut in 2011 as the first amateur competitor from Japan. He played the weekend as an amateur in 2012, finished fifth in 2015 and tied for seventh this year.

“Starting next week, all my focus and preparation will be for the Masters,” Matsuyama said through an interpreter. “Hopefully, along the way, I can play well on the PGA Tour, but the Masters is my next goal.”

Matsuyama credited his countryman Hiroshi Iwata with helping improve his putting. Iwata, 35, who has never been inside the top 60 in the world rankings, was No. 261 last week. He gave Matsuyama a putting alignment training aid that Matsuyama uses before and after every round to stroke 10 putts into the hole using just his left hand, 10 using just his right hand and 10 using both hands.

The drill, he said, has become part of his pre-round and postround ritual. Matsuyama did make one change for the Hero World Challenge. He hired Iwata’s manager and caddie, Mei Inui, to carry his bag, and he said she lifted his sagging spirits when his lead shrank from seven strokes to two.

“I’m the type when things get tough and difficult, I sometimes put my head down and become quiet,” he said, “but Mei was always positive throughout, even the back nine, and was giving me good vibes, which really helped coming in.”

Matsuyama is the first Asian player to win a World Golf Championships event, and he has 12 worldwide victories, but he demurred when asked if he is the best male golfer to come out of Japan.

He mentioned others who came before him: Jumbo Ozaki, Isao Aoki and Shigeki Maruyama, who have among them four PGA Tour victories and 155 Japan Tour titles. “To be able to follow in their footsteps is a great honor,” he said, then added, “But to answer your question, I’m not the greatest golfer from Japan.”

The attention that Matsuyama commands suggests otherwise. Since joining the PGA Tour in 2013, he has been trailed by journalists from his homeland as if he were a Woods-in-waiting. In events in the United States, Matsuyama often has a dozen or more credentialed members of the news media recording every stroke he makes.

He is more extroverted than the Bashful Prince — the nickname bestowed on the Japanese golfer Ryo Ishikawa, who is a year older. Matsuyama has a puckish sense of humor that transcends any language barriers. Asked Sunday what he does outside golf to relax, he said he drinks sake.

The spotlight that follows him like a comet’s tail took some getting used to, he conceded. “When I first turned pro and came to the PGA Tour, the Japanese media would ask me questions after every round whether I played good or bad,” Matsuyama said. “At first it was difficult for me, and I felt a lot of pressure then. But then I learned that talking with the media is just part of my job as a professional golfer, and once I realized that, it became easier.”

Matsuyama has one of the prettier swings in the game, with a pause at the top that calls to mind a contented sigh. He said he smiles to mask the fact that he doesn’t understand as much English as he would like. “I want to be able to make more friends on the PGA Tour and be able to talk to my comrades,” he said. “But right now there’s still a wall, because I don’t speak English as well as I should.”

A reporter from India playfully suggested that if Matsuyama continued to win, he might consider offering free Japanese lessons to reporters. He listened as the question was translated, then smiled. “We’ll see,” he said.

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