Over the top: The hare and the tortoise

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Published: February 14, 2016 1:11:08 AM

Slowly but steadily, Hideki Matsuyama has overtaken Ryo Ishikawa as the best Japanese golfer on the planet

These are early days in the FedEx Cup, but there’s a Japanese name in the 10th spot that punters have been betting on for a year now. And no, it’s not Ryo Ishikawa. In fact, the career-growth trajectories of the much-fancied Ishikawa and the fly-under-the-radar Hideki Matsuyama have never intersected. But first, the reason that the reticent 24-year-old Matsuyama is suddenly the talking point in world golf: at the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open last week, Matsuyama stared down Rickie Fowler—ranked fourth in the world—over three playoff holes and did not blink. Not only did Matsuyama match Fowler shot for shot, but holed crucial clutch putts to stay in the game and finally win it—a stupendous achievement for a golfer whose putting has been considered his Achilles heel.

For those who might not be familiar with Matsuyama’s game, the Japanese golfer is already acknowledged as one of the finest iron ball strikers in the game. At the Phoenix Open, he led the field in strokes gained tee-to-green and in greens in regulation. For the season, he’s fifth on the PGA Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green after finishing 2015 eighth. His putting on the other hand is another story—he’s ranked 147th on tour in strokes gained with the short stick—and that’s what makes the ones he rolled in under pressure last week all the more creditable. Matsuyama’s putting woes have been attributed as an extension of exactly what makes him so good with his irons—a robotic golf swing; a by-now trademark pause at the top of the backswing before he unwinds into the ball at an almost elegant pace. The robustness and repeatability of that action, which gives him an otherworldly consistency with his irons, robs him of the feel that you need on the greens. But if last week’s performance is any indication, it appears as if Matsuyama has learnt how to drop the ones that matter, the only way he knows how to—by grinding it out.

The comparisons with Ishikawa have been inevitable especially because both players—who played a fair bit of junior golf together—are such anti-theses to each other, both on and off the course. Ishikawa, who enjoys a rockstar-like status in Japan and is followed around the world by a large retinue of Japanese media, is a picture of good looks and flair. The ‘Bashful Prince’ was off the blocks so swiftly that he immediately caught the world’s attention by becoming the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world—the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup as a 15-year-old amateur. Ishikawa turned pro the following year and kept winning on the Japan Golf Tour, earning an entry into the Augusta Masters when he was 17 years old and representing Asia in the President’s Cup when he was 18 years old. And who can forget the 58 he shot in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19 years old.

Matsuyama, on the other hand, kept plodding along as an amateur. He got into the Masters, too, but earned his entry by winning the Asia Pacific Amateur in 2011 and repeated the feat the next year. In his first outing at Augusta the (then) 19-year-old Matsuyama finished at three-under-par for the tournament and the sole amateur in the tournament’s closing stages. In spite of that performance, he had reiterated the temptation to turn pro before completing his studies. “My goal wasn’t to be the lowest-scoring amateur, it was to make sure I was in the top 16 and am back here next year,” he had remarked in an interview to The Guardian in 2011.

When he finally did turn pro in 2013, Matsuyama was well prepared: four wins on the Japan Golf Tour made him the first rookie to win the Order of Merit. He qualified for the US Open and tied for 10th at Merion. He qualified for the British Open and tied for sixth. His worst finish in a major was a tie for 19th at the PGA Championship. Then came the breakthrough win at the PGA Tour’s Memorial tournament in 2014 after which Matsuyama went about establishing himself as one of the most consistent players on the PGA Tour. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, Matsuyama has two wins, 15 top-10 finishes and 34 top 25s. Last year, he took a step towards contending for major championships with a fifth-place finish at the Masters and a pair of T18 finishes at the US Open and British Open.

Ishikawa, on the other hand, has seen his fortunes wane: the youngest player ever to break into the world’s top 50 had to go back to the Web.com tour to get fully playing rights on the PGA Tour last year (which, to his credit, he went about without much ado).

Today, both of Japan’s biggest golfing stars are on the PGA Tour. While Ishikawa will have to play his way into the Majors, Matsuyama just has to land up and tee it up. Japanese golf fans would love a rivalry, but right now, Matsuyama is in a different league—firmly established in the second tier of top players in the world, taking the gauntlet to the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler. He’s got the game to challenge them—ask Fowler.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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