Marking 10 years of Matsuyama magic
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Marking 10 years of Matsuyama magic

Hideki Matsuyama reacts during the final round of the 2024 PGA Championship last month.
Hideki Matsuyama reacts during the final round of the 2024 PGA Championship last month.

Brian Harman, the reigning Open champion, tells a funny tale of how he and fellow PGA Tour winner, Matt Every, made a poor error in judgement on a young Asian golfer more than a decade ago. In contrast, Jack Nicklaus, holder of a record 18 major victories, knew the golf world was in for a special treat with the emergence of a rising star.

Paired together in the opening two rounds of the 2012 Sony Open in Hawaii alongside one of several Japanese sponsor exemptions that week, Harman's first impression was similar to Every's thoughts -- "Don't think this kid's got it."

"So we're playing with this kid, and there are photographers all over the place. He dribbled a couple off the tee boxes and Matt and I made the comment, don't think this kid's got it. He's like nervous beyond all belief. Missed the cut. Didn't play good at all. Don't think this guy is gonna make it … Hideki Matsuyama," said Harman.

Yup, the very same Hideki Matsuyama, who is now Asia's winningest golfer on the PGA Tour with nine career victories to date -- four more than Harman and Every combined -- and a proud owner of a green jacket following a historic triumph at the 2021 Masters Tournament. "So Matt and I would joke about that. Yeah, we missed on that one," Harman laughed.

This week marks Matsuyama's 10th anniversary of his maiden PGA Tour victory at The Memorial Tournament presented by Workday in 2014, an event hosted by golf legend Jack Nicklaus. The octogenarian remembers vividly Matsuyama's glorious march to victory at Muirfield Village via a play-off and liked what he saw.

"When he won, I said, he's going to win a lot of golf tournaments," said Nicklaus. "He was a good player before he got here, obviously, or he wouldn't have been here," added the 84-year-old on Matsuyama, who was a two-time Asia-Pacific Amateur champion before turning professional.

During his prime, Nicklaus, winner of 73 PGA Tour victories, battled against top Japanese golfers including Isao Aoki, Jumbo Ozaki and Naomichi "Joe" Ozaki but rates Matsuyama as the "best of the bunch." He marvels especially at how Matsuyama has established himself in the US despite challenges with the language barrier, along with food and cultural differences.

"It's pretty difficult for someone, particularly coming from a country where the language is difficult and basically live and play here all year long. He's done really well, he's won the Masters, won several other tournaments," said Nicklaus. "He's going to win more majors. He's just too good a player."

From the breakthrough a decade ago, Matsuyama has since cemented his stature as Asia's most decorated golfer. A stunning victory at the Tiger Woods-hosted Genesis Invitational in February, where he closed with a final round 62 at Riviera to overcome a six-shot deficit and win by three, saw him break a tie with Korea's KJ Choi at eight wins. As of this week, the 32-year-old has also enjoyed seven runner-up finishes and a staggering 40 top-5 finishes from 254 official starts. This tallies to over US$50 million in career earnings, ranking him 12th in the all-time earnings list.

Australia's Adam Scott has since become a life-long admirer of Matsuyama's success and influence for the game in Japan and across Asia, after being tasked with the responsibility to take Matsuyama under his wing at the 2013 Presidents Cup where they partnered in four matches. The 43-year-old Scott, a 14-time PGA Tour winner, enjoyed a front row seat when Matsuyama prevailed for his first victory as they played in the same group.

"I was pulling for him as soon as it was like, Adam, you're not going to win today with a few holes to go. I really wanted to see Hideki take that step and win a big one. So he played great down the stretch and got it done. It was his time," Scott recalled.

Time did not stand still as Matsuyama went on to win twice in each of 2016 and 2017 and rose to a career high No.2 on the Official World Golf Ranking. Back and neck injuries slowed down his march for a short stretch until Matsuyama saw green at Augusta National when he claimed a momentous triumph at the 2021 Masters Tournament, making him the first Japanese male major champion.

Like Tiger Woods, Matsuyama's rise to fame has meant that every shot and stride taken on the golf course is closely followed by Japanese media, which Scott appreciates the weight of expectations that Matsuyama carries for a golf-mad nation. "He's dealt with a lot of pressure really well," said Scott. "I think his achievements are phenomenal."

While the world No.15 is expected to add to his silverware collection, the trickle effect in Japan where youngsters look up to him as a "senpai", or mentor, has gathered momentum. Aoki, the first golfer from Japan to win on the PGA Tour in 1983, anticipates Matsuyama's heroics will inspire a new era for the country.

Despite the adoration and fame, Matsuyama prefers to stay out of the spotlight. "I just want to work hard and play well, rather than think about what I had done," said Matsuyama. "My life has changed gradually after being on Tour for 10 years. In that sense, it is fulfilling right now. I want to keep working hard for another 10 or 20 years. I want to work hard to win more majors and it would be great if we could compete against each other [Japanese golfers] for a championship someday."

"I am just fortunate my hard work has paid off, so there are no secrets."

Note: Fans can watch Hideki Matsuyama and the world's best golfers on the PGA Tour on TrueSports 5 and DAZN.

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