KAWAGOE, Japan – For a man who welcomes the spotlight about as much as a night owl, this week’s Olympic Men’s Competition is a mixed blessing.
On one hand, Hideki Matsuyama has already had a career year by becoming Japan’s first major champion with his victory at the Masters in April. On the other, well, it has been a year.
Matsuyama tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month and was forced to miss The Open, along with the Rocket Mortgage Classic, where he tested positive. He also missed last week’s 3M Open because of the travel and quarantine requirements of playing the Olympics, meaning he will have gone a month and a half without a finish on the PGA Tour.
And then there’s the Games which are being played in his native Japan on a course, Kasumigaseki Country Club, where he won the Asian Pacific Amateur a decade ago to earn his first start at the Masters.
If someone was writing this script it would get bounced back for having too many cliches – the favorite son returns home for the most meaningful golf tournament in the country’s history.
If Matsuyama was into this type of hyperbole it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But he’s not. Her wants none of it. Although the reclusive 29-year-old is among the Tour’s most scrutinized players, his life remains an amazing mystery.
He was famously married and had a child before the flock of media that follows him ever even reported he had a girlfriend and in April at Augusta National he was asked if he feels like a “rock star” when he’s in Japan?
“I don't know,” he deadpanned.
Although in real-world terms the two players from South Korea face profound consequences – mandatory military service unless they win an Olympic medal – the pressure Matsuyama is under this week is difficult to quantify.
The green jacket he brought home elevates Matsuyama to unrivaled status in Japan, but the Olympics are an altogether different standard. For the golf-crazed nation, this week’s event is a matter of national pride and, with apologies to fellow countryman and teammate Rikuya Hoshino, the pressure sits squarely on Matsuyama’s shoulders.
Abraham Ancer can only imagine what the week will be like for Matsuyama, but he can empathize. He faced similar pressure in 2019 when he was paired with Tiger Woods for the first two rounds at the World Golf Championship in his native Mexico.
“It's a huge event and playing alongside my idol growing up I was extremely nervous, but it was something that I really cherish and to know it has helped me a lot dealing with nerves or when I'm in a stressful situation,” Ancer said. “I look back and I remember how I felt and what I did right and what I did wrong. It was just really cool. Something that I will always remember.”
Whether Matsuyama has a similarly memorable experience this week will likely depend on his performance. While most athletes strive to separate result from process that won’t be a luxury this week, a fact that was only complicated in early July when he tested positive for COVID-19.
Not only did Matsuyama miss three crucial starts, he also missed 10 days of practice while quarantined.
“I was staying home and did my best to recover from the symptoms. During that time, I was unable to practice, but once I got back to Japan I started practicing,” Matsuyama said. “In terms of preparation, it started a little bit with a delay but hopefully I'll be able to be in the best form possible for the event this week.”
In addition to his forced time off, Matsuyama has also struggled with his form since his major breakthrough at the Masters, with his best finish a tie for 23rd at the PGA Championship.
“I'm a little bit nervous,” he conceded about this week. “But I'm really looking forward to it, I think it's going to be really fun and I'm going to try to do my best to play well.”
Given the scrutiny that follows Matsuyama around the globe maybe this week will be like any other, at least from a logistics vantage. But he’s knows better. He knows how much a medal in golf would mean to this country. More importantly, he knows that all of Japan is watching.