There’s no shortage of subplots to be found at this week’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. The most obvious being Jordan Spieth’s first crack at a career Grand Slam having picked up the third piece of the puzzle at Birkdale last month. Many people in this part of the world will be hoping it inspires a rivalry that’s yet to come to fruition – McIlroy versus Spieth – with Rory having long been touted as the next in line to the Grand Slam throne, a seat occupied by just five other men in history.
So naturally by the time the action tees off I’ll be wearing my green tinted glasses, but there’ll be a place in my heart for Japan should the Irish challenge fade. Few golfers, if any, will be playing under a weight of expectation to match that of Hideki Matsuyama this week. It’s no wonder he’s built up a reputation as a slow player, he’s carrying the hopes of a nation around, one fairway at a time. His story is a remarkable one. The rising son of Japanese golf. The player expected to end the nation’s Major drought.
But Matsuyama’s life has not been without hardship. He was studying at University in Sendai when the 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated the city in which he lived. Of the near 16,000 killed, inevitably there were some he knew that perished. He made the difficult decision to move to America as an 18 year old in the hope that his golf could bring joy to his nation, and without a swing coach, he succeeded, becoming the world amateur number one in the land of opportunity. Back then Japanese ambitions rested solely on Rio Ishikawa’s shoulders. How times have changed.
Hideki’s performance in winning last week’s Bridgestone Invitational confirmed what we already knew, his game is Major ready. Yet if there was one criticism to be levelled at Matsuyama, one obvious stat holding him back in his quest for glory, it’s in relation to his putting. 167th in strokes gained with the short stick this year tells its own story. It’s a testament to the player that he’s won three times in 2017 despite that noose around his putter. However, with a new Taylormade prototype in the bag last week he produced his most deadly display on the greens to date. Perhaps the jigsaw is now complete.
His fans have been patient. If you think back to the Irish Open at Portstewart and the throngs of media coverage following the marquee group of McIlroy, Rahm and Matsuyama, you could be forgiven for thinking that the paparazzi were going snap crazy for tournament host Rory. In fact the majority lay in wait for their Japanese hero Hideki, eager to follow him through to the British Open where so much hype was building. It didn’t play out in Birkdale, but Quail Hollow is no exposed links. Still, expectations must be managed.
Whatever about the exuberance of his army of followers, Matsuyama’s feet have remained planted on the ground. He’s never been comfortable with the tag of the best player from Japan. He often points to Hall of Famer Jumbo Ozaki to quash such leaps of praise. Yet although Jumbo won more than 100 golf tournaments, he never won in America, nor did he ever win in a digital age so obsessed with its sporting icons that should Matsuyama sneeze on camera it would inevitably go viral in Japan.
After Hideki claimed his first PGA Tour victory at the Memorial in 2014, host Jack Nicklaus predicted, “I think you’ve just seen the start of what’s going to be truly one of your world’s great players over the next 10 to 15 years.”
Jack knows the craic. Hideki’s bolted to number 3 in the world and has already earned more money than he could wish to spend. But with so many questions of commitment, loyalty and focus circling our sport and others of late, something tells me that Matsuyama’s in this thing for more than the money.
Sporting immortality awaits young man. No pressure then.