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.

South Korean LPGA stars lead KLPGA team

By Randall MellNovember 24, 2017, 10:32 pm

South Korea’s LPGA team of all-stars took the early lead Friday on the Korean LPGA Tour in a team event featuring twice as much star power as this year’s Solheim Cup did.

Eight of the world’s top 20 players are teeing it up in the ING Life Champions Trophy/ Inbee Park Invitational in Gyeongju. There were only four players among the top 20 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings when the United States defeated Europe in Des Moines, Iowa.

Park led the LPGA team to a 3 ½-to-2 ½ lead on the first day.

Park, who has been recuperating from a back injury for most of the second half of this season, teamed with Jeongeun Lee5 to defeat Hye Jin Choi and Ji Hyun Kim, 5 and 4, in the lead-off four-ball match.

So Yeon Ryu and Park, former world No. 1s and LPGA Rolex Player of the Year Award winners, will be the marquee pairing on Saturday. They will lead off foursomes against Ji Young Kim and Min Sun Kim.

Nine of the 11 South Koreans who won LPGA events this year are competing. Sung Hyun Park and I.K. Kim are the only two who aren’t.

The fourball results:

LPGA’s Inbee Park/ Jeongeun Lee5 def. Hye Jin Choi/Ji Hyun Kim, 5 and 4.

LPGA’s Mirim Lee/Amy Yang def.  Ji Hyun Oh/Min Sun Kim, 3 and 1.

LPGA’s M.J. Hur/Mi Hyang Lee halved Ji Hyun Kim/Ji Young Kim.

KLPGA’s Ha Na Jang/Sun Woo Bae def. Sei Young Kim/Hyo Joo Kim, 5 and 4.

LPGA’s Na Yeon Choi/Jenny Shin halved Jin Young Ko/Da Yeon Lee

LPGA’s In Gee Chun/Eun Hee Ji halved Jeongeun Lee6/Char Young Kim.

NOTE: The KPGA uses numerals after a player’s name to distinguish players with the exact same name.

 

Cut Line: Lyle faces third bout with cancer

By Rex HoggardNovember 24, 2017, 5:40 pm

In this week’s holiday edition, Cut Line is thankful for the PGA Tour’s continued progress on many fronts and the anticipation that only a Tiger Woods return can generate.

Made Cut

The Fighter. That was the headline of a story Cut Line wrote about Jarrod Lyle following his second bout with cancer a few years ago, so it’s both sad and surreal to see the affable Australian now bracing for a third fight with leukemia.

Lyle is working as an analyst for Channel 7’s coverage of this week’s Emirates Australian Open prior to undergoing another stem cell transplant in December.

“I’ve got a big month coming,” Lyle said. “I’m back into hospital for some really heavy-duty treatment that’s really going to determine how things pan out for me.”

Twice before things have panned out for Lyle. Let’s hope karma has one more fight remaining.

Changing times. Last season the PGA Tour introduced a policy to add to the strength of fields, a measure that had long eluded officials and by most accounts was a success.

This season the circuit has chosen to tackle another long-standing thorn, ridiculously long pro-am rounds. While there seems little the Tour can do to speed up play during pro-am rounds, a new plan called a 9&9 format will at least liven things up for everyone involved.

Essentially, a tournament hosting a pro-am with four amateurs can request the new format, where one professional plays the first nine holes and is replaced by another pro for the second nine.

Professionals will have the option to request 18-hole pro-am rounds, giving players who limit practice rounds to just pro-am days a chance to prepare, but otherwise it allows Tour types to shorten what is an admittedly long day while the amateurs get a chance to meet and play with two pros.

The new measure does nothing about pace of play, but it does freshen up a format that at times can seem tired, and that’s progress.

Tweet of the week: @Love3d (Davis Love III‏) “Thanks to Dr. Flanagan (Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center) for the new hip and great care! Can’t wait to get back to (the PGA Tour).”

Love offered the particularly graphic tweet following hip replacement surgery on Tuesday, a procedure that he admitted he’d delayed because he was “chicken.”

The surgery went well and Love is on pace to return to the Tour sometime next spring. As for the possibility of over-sharing on social media, we’ll leave that to the crowd.


Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

Distance control. The Wall Street Journal provided the octagon for the opening blows of a clash that has been looming for a long time.

First, USGA executive director Mike Davis told The Journal that the answer to continued distance gains may be a restricted-flight golf ball with an a la carte rule that would allow different organizations, from the Tour all the way down to private clubs, deciding which ball to use.

“You can’t say you don’t care about distance, because guess what? These courses are expanding and are predicted to continue to expand,” Davis said. “The impact it has had has been horrible.”

A day later, Wally Uihlein, CEO of Acushnet, which includes the Titleist brand, fired back in a letter to The Journal, questioning among other things how distance gains are putting a financial burden on courses.

“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,” Uihlein wrote.

For anyone paying attention the last few years, this day was inevitable and the likely start of what will be a drawn out and heated process, but Cut Line’s just not sure anyone wins when it’s over.

Tiger, take II. Tiger Woods’ return to competition next week at the Hero World Challenge was always going to generate plenty of speculation, but that hyperbole reached entirely new levels this week as players began giving personal accounts of the new and improved 14-time major champion.

“I did talk to him, and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years,’” Day said as he prepared for the Australian Open. “If he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.”

Rickie Fowler added to the frenzy when he was asked this month if the rumors that Woods is driving the ball by him, by 20 to 30 yards by some reports, are true?

“Oh, yeah,” he told Golf.com. “Way by.”

Add to all this a recent line that surfaced in Las Vegas that Woods is now listed at 20-1 to win a major in 2018, and it seems now may be a good time for a restraint.

Golf is better with Woods, always has been and always will be, but it may be best to allow Tiger time to find out where his body and game are before we declare him back.


Missed Cut

Searching for answers. Twelve months ago, Hideki Matsuyama was virtually unstoppable and, regardless of what the Official World Golf Ranking said, arguably the best player on the planet.

Now a year removed from that lofty position, which featured the Japanese star finishing either first or second in six of his seven starts as the New Year came and went, Matsuyama has faded back to fifth in the world and on Sunday finished fifth, some 10 strokes behind winner Brooks Koepka, at the Dunlop Phoenix.

“That hurt,” Matsuyama told the Japan Times. “I don’t know whether it’s a lack of practice or whether I lack the strength to keep playing well. It seems there are many issues to address.”

Since his last victory at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Matsuyama has just two top-10 finishes on Tour and he ended his 2016-17 season with a particularly poor performance at the Presidents Cup.

While Matsuyama’s take seems extreme considering his season, there are certainly answers that need answering.

Trump playing 'quickly' with Tiger, DJ

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 24, 2017, 1:33 pm

Updated at 11:14 a.m. ET

An Instagram user known as hwalks posted photos to her account that included images of Tiger Woods, President Trump and Dustin Johnson Friday at Trump National, as well as video of Woods' swing.


Here are some other social media posts that have surfaced:


Original story:

Tiger Woods is scheduled to make his return to competition next week at his Hero World Challenge. But first, a (quick) round with the President.

President Donald Trump tweeted on Friday that he was going to play at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Fla., alongside Woods and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.



Woods and President Trump previously played last December. Trump, who, according to trumpgolfcount.com has played 75 rounds since taking over the presidency, has also played over the last year with Rory McIlroy, Ernie Els and Hideki Matsuyama.

Chawrasia leads major champs in Hong Kong

By Associated PressNovember 24, 2017, 1:19 pm

HONG KONG – S.S.P. Chawrasia extended his lead at the Hong Kong Open to two strokes Friday after a 4-under 66 in the second round.

Chawrasia, who had led by one at the Hong Kong Golf Club, is at 9-under 131 overall and took as much as a five-stroke lead at one point.

''Yesterday I was putting very well, and today, also I make some up and downs. I saved a couple of short putts. That's why I think I'm leading by two shots most probably,'' the Indian said. ''The next two days, I'm just looking forward.''


Full-field scores from the UBS Hong Kong Open


Thomas Aiken (64) is second, followed by Alexander Bjork (66), Joakim Lagergren (66), Poom Saksansin (68) and Julian Suri (67) at 5 under 135.

Aiken's round was the lowest of the tournament.

''It is tough out there. The greens are really firm. You've got to hit the fairway,'' Aiken said. ''If you get above the holes, putts can get away from you.''

Justin Rose (69) had six birdies, but three bogeys and a double-bogey at the par 3 12th kept him at 3 under for the tournament.

Masters champion Sergio Garcia (71), playing for the first time in Hong Kong, was at even par, as was defending champion Sam Brazel (71) and 2014 champion Scott Hend (67).

''I have to play better,'' Garcia said. ''The way I felt like I played, it's difficult. This kind of course, you need to play well to shoot a good score.''