Whether it’s deliberate and well-planned or just a manifestation of his reticent personality, Hideki Matsuyama’s meteoric rise in the world of golf in the past four months is only matched by the lack of profusion in the media about the Japanese golfer’s scintillating play. Under the radar, so to speak, although, given the magnitude of his successes—four wins in seven starts since September 2016 (and the three times he didn’t win, he finished runner-up twice and tied fifth once)—and the stages on which they’ve been accomplished (two victories on the Japan Tour, two on the PGA Tour and a top-five in a Major—The Tour Championship), that phrase seems flawed in this context. Not only is the 25-year-old ranked sixth in the world right now, he also leads the FedEx Cup Rankings for the 2017-18 season.
Even for someone like Matsuyama—who self-admittedly likes plying his trade quietly and as unobtrusively as possible—the stealth with which he’s gone from the top-ranked amateur in 2013 to one of the top contenders for the numero uno spot in pro golf today is startling. I’m not gushing. Matsuyama’s towering achievements only assume their full height when viewed relatively: for the sake of this piece, let’s compare him with an Indian contemporary—Khalin Joshi. Joshi, one of the top amateurs in his class, represented India at the Asian Amateur championship in 2010 and 2011, both editions of which were won by Matsuyama. Not only did he win them, but Matsuyama’s winning scores set records—for lowest-to-par, 18-under 2011 and lowest total score, 270 in 2010—that stand to this day. While Joshi turned pro and has strung together excellent performances on the PGTI, and now on the Asian Tour, Matsuyama went straight to participating and winning on the Japan Golf Tour and getting his PGA Tour card in 2013. Now, in a short span of three years as pro, the Japanese player has notched up multiple wins on golf’s premier tour—including a path-breaking win in the World Golf Championships, broken into the top-10 world ranking, and is now on the verge of contending for the best player on the planet. That last bit, in itself, is a stupendous achievement, but to do it in the short time that he has is literally mid-boggling. Now, if you haven’t heard much about him then you’ll understand my wonder at his stealth.
The business of golf started looking east at the turn of the century, and now, close to two decades on, the shift has been decisive, fuelled by the growth of the game—infrastructure, players, and popularity—in countries like Thailand, Malaysia, China, India, Vietnam, among others, and a negative corollary to that in the West. Asia, and the gulf nations are where the money is. The one thing missing has been a profusion of Asian players in the top echelons of the game that are still dominated by Americans and Europeans. The last, and possibly most crucial piece of the puzzle, when it comes to growing the game, is the creation of heroes, of brands. The soft-power and intangible effect of an Asian World number one cannot be understated. For all his diffidence, Matsuyama might well go down in history as the biggest hero for budding Asian golfers in the modern era.
Coming back to Matsuyama’s low-key public profile, the one thing that has really worked in favour of the reticent golfer has been the tall shadow cast by Ryo Ishikawa. At least when it comes to Japan, the media’s unconditional and blinding adoration of Ishikawa has allowed Matsuyama a relatively pressure-free environment to hone his skills. Ishikawa with this movie star looks and prescient talent, captured unprecedented national imagination in the golf-crazy country when he burst on the scene a couple of years before Matsuyama. The fact that he hasn’t been able to translate his successes on the Japan Golf Tour to the global stage hasn’t dimmed the adulation Ishikawa continues to receive in Japan. Matsuyama, on the other hand, is a different animal altogether; reserved, mild-mannered, and given to understatement. The kind of guy who really would prefer to keep his own counsel; who wouldn’t even want his play to do the talking because that implies that he wants to be talked about.
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Funnily enough, he was able to have that cake and eat it too when he won the Hero World Challenge in December last year: with the spotlight firmly on tournament host Tiger Woods’ return to professional golf, Matsuyama was the side story. That deflection of attention suited Matsuyama perfectly; he should savour that memory because his campaign for the top spot in the world of golf is well and truly exposed. At this juncture he should probably consider drawing inspiration and strength from popular success. Surely, all of Japan, and Asia too, will be rooting for the crowning of the first Asian at the pinnacle of world golf. The traditional Japanese work ethic is founded on humility and application; there could be no better model for that than Hideki Matsuyama—he’s not the exception, and he proves the rule.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game