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.
“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.