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.

Rahm, Koepka both jump in OWGR after wins

By Will GrayNovember 20, 2017, 1:19 pm

Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka both made moves inside the top 10 of the Official World Golf Rankings following wins in Dubai and Japan, respectively.

Rahm captured the European Tour season finale, winning the DP World Tour Championship by a shot. It was his third worldwide victory of 2017 and it allowed the Spaniard to overtake Hideki Matsuyama at world No. 4. It also establishes a new career high in the rankings for Rahm, who started the year ranked No. 137.

Koepka cruised to a nine-shot victory while successfully defending his title at the Japan Tour's Dunlop Phoenix. The victory was his first since winning the U.S. Open and it helped Koepka jump three spots to No. 7 in the latest rankings. Reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele, who finished second behind Koepka in Japan, went from 30th to 24th.

After earning his maiden PGA Tour victory at the RSM Classic, Austin Cook vaulted from No. 302 to No. 144 in the world. Runner-up J.J. Spaun jumped 48 spots to No. 116, while a hole-out with his final approach helped Brian Gay rise 73 spots to No. 191 after finishing alone in third at Sea Island.

Dustin Johnson remains world No. 1, followed by Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas with Rahm and Matsuyama now rounding out the top five. Justin Rose remains at No. 6, followed by Koepka, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson. Rory McIlroy slid two spots to No. 10 and is now in danger of falling out of the top 10 for the first time since May 2014.

With his return to competition now less than two weeks away, Tiger Woods fell four more spots to No. 1193 in the latest rankings.

Love to undergo hip replacement surgery

By Rex HoggardNovember 20, 2017, 1:08 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Two days removed from arguably the most hectic week of his year, Davis Love III will undergo replacement surgery on his left hip.

Love, who hosted and played in last week’s RSM Classic, said he tried to avoid the surgery, but the pain became too much and he will undergo the procedure on Tuesday at the Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center in Birmingham, Ala.

“I had a hip problem the last few years, and I had a hip resurfacing trying to avoid hip surgery because I’m a chicken, but after playing [the CIMB Classic and Sanderson Farms Championship] I realized it was an uphill battle,” Love said.


RSM Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the RSM Classic


Love said doctors have told him recovery from the procedure will take between three to four months, but he should be able to start work on his chipping and putting within a few weeks.

Love, who missed the cut at the RSM Classic, said earlier in the week that his goal is to become the oldest PGA Tour winner and that the only way to achieve that was by having the surgery.

“Now I’m excited that I’ve crossed that bridge,” said Love, who will turn 54 next April. “Once I get over that I can go right back to the Tour. I won after a spine fusion [2015 Wyndham Championship] and now I’d like to win with a new hip. That’s the reason I’m doing it so I can get back to golf and keep up.”

LPGA awards: Ryu, S.H. Park tie for POY

By Randall MellNovember 20, 2017, 1:56 am

NAPLES, Fla. – In the end, the CME Group Tour Championship played out a lot like the entire 2017 season did.

Parity reigned.

Nobody dominated the game’s big season-ending awards, though Lexi Thompson and Sung Hyun Park came close.

Thompson walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for low scoring average. If she had made that last 2-foot putt at the 72nd hole Sunday, she might also have walked away with the Rolex Player of the Year Award and the Rolex world No. 1 ranking.

Park shared the Rolex Player of the Year Award with So Yeon Ryu. By doing so, Park joined Nancy Lopez as the only players in LPGA history to win the Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year titles in the same season. Lopez did it in 1978. Park also won the LPGA money-winning title.

Here’s a summary of the big prizes:

Rolex Player of the Year
Ryu and Park both ended up with 162 points in the points-based competition. Park started the week five points behind Ryu but made the up the difference with the five points she won for tying for sixth.

It marks the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Ryu and Park join Inbee Park as the only South Koreans to win the award. Park won it in 2013.


Vare Trophy
Thompson won the award with a scoring average of 69.114. Sung Hyun Park finished second at 69.247. Park needed to finish at least nine shots ahead of Thompson at the CME Group Tour Championship to win the trophy.

There were a record 12 players with scoring averages under 70.0 this year, besting the previous record of five, set last year.


CME Globe $1 million prize
Thompson entered the week first in the CME points reset, but it played out as a two-woman race on the final day. Park needed to finish ahead of Thompson in the CME Group Tour Championship to overtake her for the big money haul. Thompson tied for second in the tournament while Park tied for sixth.

By winning the CME Group Tour Championship, Jutanugarn had a shot at the $1 million, but she needed Park to finish the tournament eighth or worse and Thompson to finish ninth or worse.


LPGA money-winning title
Park claimed the title with $2,335,883 in earnings. Ryu was second, with $1,981,593 in earnings.

The tour saw a tour-record 17 players win $1 million or more this season, two more than did so last year.

Ryu came into the week as the only player who could pass Park for the title, but Ryu needed to win to do so.


Rolex world No. 1 ranking
The top ranking was up for grabs at CME, with No. 1 Feng, No. 2 Sung Hyun Park and No. 3 So Yeon Ryu all within three hundredths of a ranking point. Even No. 4 Lexi Thompson had a chance to grab the top spot if she won, but in the end nobody could overtake Feng. Her reign will extend to a second straight week.


Rolex Rookie of the Year
Park ran away with the award with her U.S. Women’s Open and Canadian Pacific Women’s Open victories among her 11 top-10 finishes. She had the award locked up long before she arrived for the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Ko ends first winless season with T-16 at CME

By Randall MellNovember 20, 2017, 1:07 am

NAPLES, Fla. – Lydia Ko carved a hybrid 3-iron to 15 feet and ended the most intensely scrutinized year of her young career with a birdie Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

“Nice to finish the season on a high note,” Ko said after posting a 3-under-par 69, good for a tie for 16th. “Obviously, not a top-10 finish, but I played really solid. I feel like I finished the season off pretty strong.”

Ko posted two second-place finishes, a third-place finish and a tie for fifth in her last eight starts.

“Ever since Indy [in early September], I played really good and put myself in good positions,” Ko said. “I felt like the confidence factor was definitely higher than during the middle of the year. I had some opportunities, looks for wins.”

Sunday marked the end of Ko’s first winless season since she began playing LPGA events at 15 years old.

Let the record show, she left with a smile, eager to travel to South Korea to spend the next month with family after playing a charity event in Bradenton, Fla., on Monday.


CME Group Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the CME Group Tour Championship


Much was made of Ko beginning the year with sweeping changes, with new equipment (PXG), a new coach (Gary Gilchrist) and a new caddie (Peter Godfrey).

In the final summary, it wasn’t a Ko-like year, not by the crazy high standards she has set.

She saw her run of 85 consecutive weeks at No. 1 end in June. She arrived in Naples holding on to the No. 8 ranking. She ends the year 13th on the LPGA money list with $1,177,450 in earnings. It’s the first time she hasn’t finished among the top three in money in her four full years on tour. She did log 11 top-10 finishes overall, three second-place finishes.

How did she evaluate her season?

“I feel like it was a better year than everyone else thinks, like `Lydia is in a slump,’” Ko said. “I feel like I played solid.

“It's a season that, obviously, I learned a lot from ... the mental aspect of saying, `Hey, get over the bads and kind of move on.’”

Ko said she learned a lot watching Stacy Lewis deal with her run of second-place finishes after winning so much.

“Winning a championship is a huge deal, but, sometimes, it's overrated when you haven't won,” Ko said. “Like, you're still playing well, but just haven't won. I kind of feel like it's been that kind of year.

“I think everybody has little ups and downs.”