Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 6, 2017

Matsuyama Has Everything But The Acclaim

Ask a casual fan to name the leading men of the PGA Tour, and you’re likely to get a list that includes Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy. Serve up the same question to a roomful of sports fans for whom golf is not a top priority, and you’ll no doubt also hear the names Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, even though the former has played exactly two rounds at a Tour event since the end of 2015 and has fallen outside the top 1,000 in the Official World Golf Rankings while the latter hasn’t won since the 2013 Open Championship. Press your interlocutors to identify the top non-Americans, and in addition to McIlroy they will probably offer up Jason Day, Sergio Garcia, and maybe Adam Scott before telling you to get lost.

Odds are you won’t hear the name Hideki Matsuyama pass the lips of a casual fan, even in response to that last question, which leaves one to wonder what the 25-year old from Shikoku, the smallest and least populous of Japan’s four main islands, must do to become a part of any conversation about the PGA Tour’s top stars.

On Sunday Matsuyama put on a ball striking clinic at the venerable Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. He dismantled the usually demanding 7,400 yard South Course, booming drives over 300 yards, dropping pinpoint approach shots close to the pins, and rolling steady putts into the holes. With seven birdies and an eagle, Matsuyama matched the course record of 9-under par 61 at the par 70 layout. The round propelled him up the leader board of the Bridgestone Invitational, a World Golf Championship event. When Matsuyama teed off the for the final round he was at 7-under par, two shots behind 54-hole co-leaders Zach Johnson and Thomas Pieters. By the time he rolled in a six-footer for birdie at the last he was five shots clear of his closest pursuer.

The win was Matsuyama’s third of the current PGA Tour season, which ties Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas for the most wins. It was also his fourth Tour victory in the last eighteen months. That matches up with any of the readily recognizable names. In the same period only Johnson has more wins with five. Spieth equals Matsuyama with four, while Day has three and McIlroy two PGA Tour victories. For good measure Matsuyama also won twice on the Japan Golf Tour last fall.

His consistent play since turning pro in April 2013 has resulted in Matsuyama steadily ascending the World Rankings. On the strength of his play in a handful of Japan Tour events while still an amateur, he was already ranked not far outside the top 100 when he turned pro. By the end of that year he was up to 23rd. He moved inside the top 20 in 2014, and up the 15th by the end of 2015. He cracked the top 10 last year, finishing at 6th. This season he moved as high as 2nd in the world after his runner-up finish at the U.S. Open in June, and he’s currently ranked 3rd, behind only Johnson and Spieth.

The only thing Matsuyama hasn’t done – yet – is win a major championship, and surely that explains why he has yet to show up on the radar of casual golf fans. Fresh off his dominating close at the Bridgestone, he and the rest of the world’s best players head to North Carolina this week for the PGA Championship, the season’s final major. It’s reasonable to ask whether we’re about to see the one item missing from Matsuyama’s golfing resume added at Quail Hollow.

We’ll know for sure a week from now, but the truth is that golf is a notoriously hard sport to handicap. Each weekly event is at a different venue, not all of which suit every player’s eye. Even if one finds a layout appealing, his fortunes can turn on the vagaries of the weather. In the first two rounds the field flip-flops starting times. Those with a morning tee time for round one go out in the afternoon for round two, and vice versa. Bad weather that moves in midday on Thursday and lingers through Friday morning before clearing can ruin the week for half the field.

What we know is that Matsuyama comes in as the hot player of the moment, and with a good track record in the majors for one still without a victory. Last year he tied for 7th at the Masters and tied for 4th at the PGA. This season he’s placed in the top 15 at each of the first three majors, including that 2nd place finish behind Brooks Koepka at Erin Hills. But by his own admission Matsuyama has not played particularly well at Quail Hollow, which is the usual site of the Wyndham Championship.

There is also one other unique factor that will weigh on Matsuyama’s chances, perhaps very heavily. No Japanese golfer has ever won a major championship. Isao Aoki’s second place finish behind Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 U.S. Open was as close as any player from the golf-mad country had come until Matsuyama matched that performance in June. Were he to end the drought, it is hard to imagine the extent to which Matsuyama would be feted in his homeland. But it is equally difficult to grasp the enormous pressure the challenge of becoming the first, of writing a page in golf’s long history, will impose should Matsuyama be in position to do so come next Sunday.

But watching the free swinging 25-year old make his way around one of golf’s legendary courses this Sunday, reducing Firestone to little more than a driver-wedge muni on hole after hole, one clearly saw all the talent that it takes to be a major champion. Whether it happens this week at Quail Hollow or at some future major, Hideki Matsuyama appears poised to end a nation’s long wait for golfing glory. Maybe then he’ll get the recognition he already deserves.

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