Matsuyama: A profile of pressure and passion

By Ryan LavnerAugust 15, 2017, 10:00 pm

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The distinct pause at the top of Hideki Matsuyama’s backswing offers plenty of time for contemplation.

Will this iron shot land 15 feet left or right of the flag?

Can a swing this violent, this fast and this ferocious, hold up for the next decade?

And what’s swirling inside, as he tries to win not only for himself but also for his country?

Matsuyama provided a small window into that inner turmoil at the PGA Championship. With five bogeys on the back nine, including a crucial 4 1/2-foot miss on the 70th hole, he kicked away his chance to become the first Japanese man to win a major. He finished three shots back of Justin Thomas, in a tie for fifth, completing a major season in which he finished inside the top 15 in all four Grand Slam events.

“I want to learn from this experience,” he told Japanese reporters afterward. “I don’t know what it is that I have to do in order to win, but I want to practice with all my heart and soul.”

Over the past few years, it’s become a running joke that at every pre-tournament news conference, one reporter will undoubtedly ask Matsuyama’s peers about his chances to win a major.

They’ll smile knowingly and then rave about the Japanese star’s myriad strengths. His commitment. His swing. His consistency.

All of the tools are there, they’ll gush.

It’s just a matter of time before he wins one, they’ll say.



There are no inevitabilities in golf, but Matsuyama – even more than Rickie Fowler or Jon Rahm – seems the most likely to land a major title soon. He’s aware of that noise, too.

“I think all of Japan is expecting every major we go to, OK, this is going to be the one,” said Bob Turner, Matsuyama’s manager and interpreter.

“He definitely wants to make the people of Japan proud, but I think, like any golfer, he plays for himself, his family, his friends. He’d sure love to win one for Japan, though. There’s no doubt about that.”

Save for Tiger Woods, no player endures the same suffocating pressure, every week, as Matsuyama. Two-dozen reporters, photographers, videographers and broadcasters trailed him at Quail Hollow. After each round, the No. 2-ranked player in the world answered questions from Japanese television partners, then the U.S. networks and writers (with an assist from Turner), and then scrummed with Japanese reporters.

The media crush started when Matsuyama made the cut at the 2011 Masters as a 19-year-old amateur, but the scrutiny has intensified since he became a full-time PGA Tour player in ’14. Every move is documented. Every injury is overanalyzed. Every aspect of his round is dissected, sometimes in excruciating detail. And every major round that he’s in contention, he is peppered with the same questions: What would it be like to win a major? What would it mean to be the first?

Back home in Japan, there’s a race to see who will claim a Grand Slam title first, Matsuyama or tennis star Kei Nishikori.

“When he was a rookie, it was difficult for him to answer the same questions over and over again,” Turner said. “It was a struggle. But now he’s very relaxed with the media.”

And he’s always available. Turner says that not once in their five years together has Matsuyama left the course in a huff, stiff-arming the media.

“Hideki understands now that the media has a job to do,” Turner said. “He realizes that when he’s talking to the media, he’s also talking to his fans back home in Japan, too.”

Still, even among the Japanese press corps, Matsuyama, 25, remains an enigma. He is reserved and guarded, reluctant to offer any insights into his private life. Case in point: He released a statement Monday announcing not only that he was married (in January, to his college sweetheart), but last month they welcomed their first child, a baby girl. The Japanese media was stunned.

“He’s a fun-loving guy, when you get to know him,” said veteran broadcaster Rex Kuramoto, “but he’s extremely shy. He has a barrier to break through.”

Matsuyama lacks the personality and flair of his fellow countryman Ryo Ishikawa, who burst onto the scene as a 15-year-old, was dubbed the “Bashful Prince,” and became a media fascination, Japan’s version of the colorful Fowler. But Ishikawa, only five months older than Matsuyama, has yet to find his footing in the States, derailed by a back injury and, perhaps, the relentless media attention.

So why has Matsuyama been able to succeed here, after several Japanese players before him did not?

“His passion for golf,” Turner said.

Indeed, Matsuyama’s drive is legendary, and it isn’t unusual to see him grinding on the range or practice putting green until dark – even after a low round. His signature one-handed follow-throughs and looks of disgust are the result of impossibly high standards.

“His work ethic is relentless, maybe the best of any player today, and it looks like that’s how he plays as well,” said Adam Scott, who has partnered with Matsuyama at the Presidents Cup. “It’s not necessarily the longest or the straightest, but it looks like he keeps grinding and grinding and there’s a good score. And when it all goes his way …”

Well, then it’s like the final round two weeks ago at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where Matsuyama carded a career-best 61 and blew away an elite field.

“There’s a lot to be said for how much work he’s put into his game and what he’s now getting out of it,” Scott said.

Is there a balance in Matsuyama’s life? Turner was asked what his client was like away from the course, when he’s not playing golf.

“That’s a good question,” Turner said, deep in thought, “because he’s always playing golf.”

It’s telling that Matsuyama can’t provide an answer, either. Queried about his off-course interests, he pondered the question for a few moments, then responded: “Play golf.”


Hideki Matsuyama and the Japanese media at the 2016 Masters (Getty)


But Matsuyama, who now lives in a gated community in Orlando, has come to enjoy at least a few aspects of American culture. He works out daily. He is a voracious consumer of sports and current events. And he frequents chain restaurants like Panera, IHOP, Einstein Bros. and even Waffle House. (He orders the Texas melts.)

“I’ve never seen him sit and watch TV,” Turner said, before adding: “He might watch some golf, but not as much as you’d think. Everything is geared toward the next event. He reminds me of Seve [Ballesteros] that way: He couldn’t wait until Sunday night to go to the next event and start practicing again.”

That was the case last week, even after he captured his second World Golf Championships event of the season and vaulted into the Player of the Year discussion.

After starting cautiously in difficult conditions at Quail Hollow, Matsuyama stormed up the board with a Friday 64 to grab a share of a 36-hole major lead for the first time. Even Ernie Els, who has seen plenty of hotshots in his 100 major appearances, left impressed.

“The whole package is there,” he said. “His mind is brilliant. There are no flaws in his swing. And he’s not scared of the lead. Some guys will shy away from it because they’re not really sure of their games. He’s totally sure of it.”

The language barrier might prevent Matsuyama from connecting with American fans, but Els believes it might actually be advantageous at this stage of his ascendant career.

“He’s not going to be comfortable yapping it up with the guys, but in a way, it takes a bit of pressure off of him,” Els said. “He doesn’t have to be one of the guys. He doesn’t have to be the center of attention, and I think he’s comfortable with that. He’s got a nice team around him, and he keeps to himself.”

Professional golf can be a lonely existence, particularly for international players on Tour, so Matsuyama relies heavily on a team that includes his caddie, Daisuke Shindo; his trainer, Mitsuteru Iida; and Turner. In fact, Matsuyama rarely eats in player dining because his entourage isn’t allowed to join him.

Inside the ropes, though, it’s just Matsuyama and Shindo, alone with their thoughts and fears and expectations.

In the third round of the PGA, after briefly scaring the lead, Matsuyama made consecutive bogeys on Nos. 12 and 13 and carded only one birdie during a Saturday 73. Afterward, he admitted the enormity of the moment affected him: “The pressure had something to do with it, being in the last group of a major. The worries that I had about my swing showed up today in the way I played.”

Still, with Kevin Kisner’s late blunders, Matsuyama began the final round in the penultimate group, just two shots back. He was much sharper Sunday, rattling the flagstick with an approach shot early in his round, and he took the outright lead when he curled in a 20-footer on 10. Here he was, only eight holes from that elusive major, and it’s reasonable to wonder, in that moment, if the pressure got to him, if he cracked. A birdie opportunity on 11 somehow turned into a bogey, after he shoved a 4-footer.

“It made me feel like I’m good for nothing,” he said later. “I was making mistakes in not-so-difficult situations and that’s hard to take.” Two more bogeys would follow, and suddenly Matsuyama trailed Thomas by three shots.

Matsuyama rallied with consecutive birdies on Nos. 14 and 15 to close the deficit to one heading into the fearsome Green Mile. Once again, he blinked. He airmailed the green from a flier lie in the rough, then lipped out a 4-footer for par. Thomas’ birdie on 17 left little doubt about the outcome.

Resigned to another close call, Matsuyama trudged up the hill to the 18th tee, his usual media throng following close behind, ready to chronicle his biggest disappointment yet. After taking the tournament lead, he made five bogeys over the final eight holes.

Behind the clubhouse, with his and his country’s major hopes delayed another eight months, Matsuyama finally broke down. 

Midway through a TV interview, he squatted and covered his face in his hands.

Not even golf’s most mysterious star could hide the pain.

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Cabreras win PNC Father/Son Challenge

By Associated PressDecember 17, 2017, 11:36 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. - Angel Cabrera and Angel Cabrera Jr. closed with a 12-under 60 for a three-shot victory in their debut at the PNC Father/Son Challenge.

The Cabreras opened with a 59 at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club and were challenged briefly by the defending champions, David Duval and Nick Karavites, in the scramble format Sunday. The Argentines went out in 30, and they had a two-shot lead with Cabrera's son came within an inch of chipping in for eagle on the final hole.

They finished at 25-under 199 for a three-shot victory over Duval and Karavites, and Bernhard Langer and Jason Langer. The Langer team won in 2014.

Mark O'Meara and Shaun O'Meara tied for fourth at 21 under with Jerry Pate and Wesley Pate.

Cabrera wasn't even in the field until two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange and his son, Tom Strange, had to withdraw.

Duval and his stepson went out in 28, but the Cabreras regained control by starting the back nine with back-to-back birdies, and then making birdies on the 13th, 14th and 16th. The final birdie allowed them to tie the tournament scoring record.

''This is certain my best week of the year,'' said Cabrera, the 2009 Masters champion and 2007 U.S. Open champion at Oakmont. ''To play alongside all the legends ... as well as playing alongside my son, has been the greatest week of the year.''

The popular event is for players who have won a major championship or The Players Championship. It is a scramble format both days.

In some cases, the major champions lean on the power of their sons for the distance. O'Meara said Saturday that his ''little man'' hit it 58 yards by him on the 18th. And on Sunday, Stewart Cink said son Reagan told him after outdriving him on the opening four holes, ''In this tournament I may be your son, but right now I'm your Daddy!''

Jack Nicklaus played with his grandson, G.T. They closed with a 64 and tied for 15th in the field of 20 teams.

Rose wins; Aphibarnrat earns Masters bid in Indonesia

By Will GrayDecember 17, 2017, 1:59 pm

Justin Rose continued his recent run of dominance in Indonesia, while Kiradech Aphibarnrat snagged a Masters invite with some 72nd-hole dramatics.

Rose cruised to an eight-shot victory at the Indonesian Masters, carding bookend rounds of 10-under 62 that featured a brief run at a 59 during the final round. The Englishman was the highest-ranked player in the field and he led wire-to-wire, with Thailand's Phachara Khongwatmai finishing second.

Rose closes out the year as perhaps the hottest player in the world, with top-10 finishes in each of his final 10 worldwide starts. That stretch includes three victories, as Rose also won the WGC-HSBC Champions and Turkish Airlines Open. He hasn't finished outside the top 10 in a tournament since missing the cut at the PGA Championship.

Meanwhile, it took until the final hole of the final tournament of 2017 for Aphibarnrat to secure a return to the Masters. The Thai entered the week ranked No. 56 in the world, with the top 50 in the year-end world rankings earning invites to Augusta National. Needing an eagle on the 72nd hole, Aphibarnrat got just that to snag solo fifth place.

It means that he is projected to end the year ranked No. 49, while Japan's Yusaku Miyazato - who started the week ranked No. 58 and finished alone in fourth - is projected to finish No. 50. Aphibarnrat finished T-15 in his Masters debut in 2016, while Miyazato will make his first appearance in the spring.

The results in Indonesia mean that American Peter Uihlein and South Africa's Dylan Frittelli are projected to barely miss the year-end, top-50 cutoff. Their options for Masters qualification will include winning a full-point PGA Tour event in early 2018 or cracking the top 50 by the final March 25 cutoff.

Cabreras take 1-shot lead in Father/Son

By Associated PressDecember 16, 2017, 11:23 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. - Two-time major champion Angel Cabrera and Angel Cabrera Jr. birdied their last three holes for a 13-under 59 to take a one-shot lead Saturday in the PNC Father-Son Challenge.

Cabrera, a Masters and U.S. Open champion, is making his debut in this popular 36-hole scramble. His son said he practiced hard for 10 days. What helped put him at ease was watching his father make so many putts.

''We combined very well,'' Cabrera said. ''When I hit a bad shot, he hit a good one. That's the key.''

They had a one-shot lead over Mark O'Meara and Shaun O'Meara, who are playing for the first time. That included a birdie on the last hole, which O'Meara attributed to the strength of his son.

''My little man hit it 58 yards by me on the 18th,'' said O'Meara, the Masters and British Open champion in 1998. ''It's a little easier coming in with a 6-iron.''

Defending champions David Duval and Nick Karavites rallied over the back nine at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club for a 61. They are trying to become the first father-son team to repeat as winners since Bernhard and Stefan Langer in 2006. Larry Nelson won two years in a row in 2007 and 2008, but with different sons.

''I'd imagine we have to break 60 tomorrow to have a chance to win, but hey, stranger things have happened,'' Duval said. ''I've even done it myself.''

Duval shot 59 at the Bob Hope Classic to win in 1999 on his way to reaching No. 1 in the world that year.

Duval and his stepson were tied with Bernhard Langer and 17-year-old Jason Langer, who made two eagles on the last five holes. This Langer tandem won in 2014.

Jack Nicklaus, playing with grandson G.T., opened with a 68.

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Woods' 2018 schedule coming into focus ... or is it?

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 16, 2017, 5:46 pm

Two weeks after his successful return to competition at the Hero World Challenge, Tiger Woods’ 2018 schedule may be coming into focus.

Golfweek reported on Saturday that Woods hopes to play the Genesis Open in February according to an unidentified source with “direct knowledge of the situation.”

Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg declined to confirm the 14-time major champion would play the event and told GolfChannel.com that Woods – who underwent fusion surgery to his lower back in April – is still formulating his ’18 schedule.

Woods’ foundation is the host organization for the Genesis Open and the event supports the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif.

The Genesis Open would be Woods’ first start on the PGA Tour since he missed the cut last January at the Farmers Insurance Open.