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.

Open Qualifying Series kicks off with Aussie Open

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 21, 2017, 4:24 pm

The 147th Open is nearly eight months away, but there are still major championship berths on the line this week in Australia.

The Open Qualifying Series kicks off this week, a global stretch of 15 event across 10 different countries that will be responsible for filling 46 spots in next year's field at Carnoustie. The Emirates Australian Open is the first event in the series, and the top three players among the top 10 who are not otherwise exempt will punch their tickets to Scotland.

In addition to tournament qualifying opportunities, the R&A will also conduct four final qualifying events across Great Britain and Ireland on July 3, where three spots will be available at each site.

Here's a look at the full roster of tournaments where Open berths will be awarded:

Emirates Australian Open (Nov. 23-26): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

Joburg Open (Dec. 7-10): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

SMBC Singapore Open (Jan. 18-21): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

Mizuno Open (May 24-27): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

HNA Open de France (June 28-July 1): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

The National (June 28-July 1): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

Dubai Duty Free Irish Open (July 5-8): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

The Greenbrier Classic (July 5-8): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open (July 12-15): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

John Deere Classic (July 12-15): Top player (not otherwise exempt) among top five and ties

Stock Watch: Lexi, Justin rose or fall this week?

By Ryan LavnerNovember 21, 2017, 2:36 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Jon Rahm (+9%): Just imagine how good he’ll be in the next few years, when he isn’t playing all of these courses for the first time. With no weaknesses in his game, he’s poised for an even bigger 2018.

Austin Cook (+7%): From Monday qualifiers to Q-School to close calls on the Web.com, it hasn’t been an easy road to the big leagues. Well, he would have fooled us, because it looked awfully easy as the rookie cruised to a win in just his 14th Tour start.

Ariya (+6%): Her physical tools are as impressive as any on the LPGA, and if she can shore up her mental game – she crumbled upon reaching world No. 1 – then she’ll become the world-beater we always believed she could be.  

Tommy Fleetwood (+4%): He ran out of gas in Dubai, but no one played better on the European Tour this year than Fleetwood, Europe’s new No. 1, who has risen from 99th to 18th in the world.   

Lexi (+1%): She has one million reasons to be pleased with her performance this year … but golf fans are more likely to remember the six runners-up and two careless mistakes (sloppy marking at the ANA and then a yippy 2-footer in the season finale) that cost her a truly spectacular season.


FALLING

J-Rose (-1%): Another high finish in Dubai, but his back-nine 38, after surging into the lead, was shocking. It cost him not just the tournament title, but also the season-long race.  

Hideki (-2%): After getting blown out at the Dunlop Phoenix, he made headlines by saying there’s a “huge gap” between he and winner Brooks Koepka. Maybe something was lost in translation, but Matsuyama being too hard on himself has been a familiar storyline the second half of the year. For his sake, here’s hoping he loosens up.

Golf-ball showdown (-3%): Recent comments by big-name stars and Mike Davis’ latest salvo about the need for a reduced-flight ball could set up a nasty battle between golf’s governing bodies and manufacturers.

DL3 (-4%): Boy, the 53-year-old is getting a little too good at rehab – in recent years, he has overcome a neck fusion, foot injury, broken collarbone and displaced thumb. Up next is hip-replacement surgery.

LPGA Player of the Year (-5%): Sung Hyun Park and So Yeon Ryu tied for the LPGA’s biggest prize, with 162 points. How is there not a tiebreaker in place, whether it’s scoring average or best major performance? Talk about a buzzkill.

Titleist's Uihlein fires back at Davis over distance

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 21, 2017, 12:59 am

Consider Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein unmoved by Mike Davis' comments about the evolution of the golf ball – and unhappy.

In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, the outlet which first published Davis' comments on Sunday, Uihlein took aim at the idea that golf ball distance gains are hurting the sport by providing an additional financial burden to courses.

"Is there any evidence to support this canard … the trickle-down cost argument?” he wrote (via Golf.com). “Where is the evidence to support the argument that golf course operating costs nationwide are being escalated due to advances in equipment technology?"

Pointing the blame elsewhere, Uihlein criticized the choices and motivations of modern architects.

"The only people that seem to be grappling with advances in technology and physical fitness are the short-sighted golf course developers and the supporting golf course architectural community who built too many golf courses where the notion of a 'championship golf course' was brought on line primarily to sell real estate," he wrote.

The Titleist CEO even went as far as to suggest that Tiger Woods' recent comments that "we need to do something about the golf ball" were motivated by the business interersts of Woods' ball sponsor, Bridgestone.

"Given Bridgestone’s very small worldwide market share and paltry presence in professional golf, it would seem logical they would have a commercial motive making the case for a reduced distance golf ball," he added.

Acushnet Holdings, Titleist's parent company, announced in September that Uihlein would be stepping down as the company's CEO at the end of this year but that he will remain on the company's board of directors.

Class of 2011: The groups before The Group

By Mercer BaggsNovember 20, 2017, 9:00 pm

We’ve been grouping things since the beginning, as in The Beginning, when God said this is heaven and this is earth, and you’re fish and you’re fowl.

God probably wasn’t concerned with marketing strategies at the time and how #beastsoftheearth would look with a hashtag, but humans have evolved into such thinking (or not evolved, depending on your thinking).

We now have all manner of items lumped into the cute, the catchy and the kitschy. Anything that will capture our attention before the next thing quickly wrests said attention away.

Modern focus, in a group sense in the golf world, is on the Class of 2011. This isn’t an arbitrary assembly of players based on world ranking or current form. It’s not a Big Pick A Number.

There’s an actual tie that binds as it takes a specific distinction to be part of the club. It’s a group of 20-somethings who graduated from high school in the aforementioned year, many who have a PGA Tour card, a handful of who have PGA Tour wins, and a couple of who have major titles.

It’s a deep and talented collective, one for which our knowledge should continue to expand as resumes grow.

Do any “classes” in golf history compare? Well, it’s not like we’ve long been lumping successful players together based on when they completed their primary education. But there are other notable groups of players, based primarily on birthdate, relative competition and accomplishment.

Here’s a few on both the men’s and women’s side:

BORN IN 1912

Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
Feb. 4, 1912 Byron Nelson 52 5
May 27, 1912 Sam Snead 82 7
Aug. 13, 1912 Ben Hogan 64 9

Born six months within one another. Only a threesome, but a Hall of Fame trio that combined for 198 PGA Tour wins and 21 majors.


BORN IN 1949

Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
Sept. 4, 1949 Tom Watson 39 8
Dec. 5, 1949 Lanny Wadkins 21 1
Dec. 9, 1949 Tom Kite 19 1

Only 96 days separate these three Hall of Fame players. Extend the reach into March of 1950 and you'll get two-time U.S. Open winner Andy North.


BORN IN 1955

Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
Jan. 30, 1955 Curtis Strange 17 2
Jan. 30, 1955 Payne Stewart 11 3
Feb. 10, 1955 Greg Norman 20 2

Another trio of Hall of Fame players. Strange and Stewart were born on the same day with Norman 11 days later. Fellow PGA Tour winners born in 1955: Scott Simpson, Scott Hoch and Loren Roberts.


WITHIN A CALENDAR YEAR, 1956-57

Birthdate Player LPGA wins Major wins
Feb. 22, 1956 Amy Alcott 29 5
Oct. 14, 1956 Beth Daniel 33 1
Oct. 27, 1956 Patty Sheehan 35 6
Jan. 6, 1957 Nancy Lopez 48 3

A little arbitrary here, but go with it. Four Hall of Famers on the women's side, all born within one year of each other. That's an average (!) career of 36 tour wins and nearly four majors.


EUROPE'S BIG 5

Birthdate Player Euro (PGA Tour) wins Major wins
April 9, 1957 Seve Ballesteros 50 (9) 5
July 18, 1957 Nick Faldo 30 (9) 6
Aug. 27, 1957 Bernhard Langer 42 (3) 2
Feb. 9, 1958 Sandy Lyle 18 (6) 2
March 2, 1958 Ian Woosnam 29 (2) 1

The best 'class' of players Europe has to offer. Five born within a year of one another. Five Hall of Fame members. Five who transformed and globalized European golf.


WITHIN A CALENDAR YEAR, 1969-70

Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
Sept. 12, 1969 Angel Cabrera 3 2
Oct. 17, 1969 Ernie Els 19 4
May 12, 1970 Jim Furyk 17 1
May 12, 1970 Mike Weir 8 1
June 16, 1970 Phil Mickelson 42 5

Not a tight-knit group, but a little more global bonding in accordance to the PGA Tour's increased international reach. Add in worldwide wins – in excess of 200 combined – and this group is even more impressive.


BORN IN 1980

Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
Jan. 9, 1980 Sergio Garcia 10 1
July 16, 1980 Adam Scott 13 1
July 30, 1980 Justin Rose 8 1

Could be three future Hall of Fame members here.

Editor's note: Golf Channel's editorial research unit contributed.