World stage at Muirfield Village is Matsuyama's biggest test yet as professional

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Hideki Matsuyama won three times on the Japan Tour in 2013 and finished in the top-10 at two majors.
September 30, 2013
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM

Hideki Matsuyama is scheduled to graduate in March from Japan’s Tohoku Fukushi University, where he shares a dormitory with members of the school’s golf team. He hasn’t been home much this year, though. 

The 21-year-old is representing the International Team at this week's Presidents Cup, the only player at Muirfield Village who still resides in student housing. Since turning pro in April, Matsuyama has contended at majors, dominated in his home country and earned a PGA TOUR card. He will be the youngest player on his team and the second-youngest at Muirfield Village; only the United States' Jordan Spieth, 20, is younger.

“I’m very happy to be a member of the team,” Matsuyama said through a translator at the Wyndham Championship, his final TOUR start before the Presidents Cup. “It’s quite an honor. But at the same time, I feel a responsibility to do the very best I can for the team because this is a team event. In that respect, I feel a little weight on my shoulders. I feel that responsibility a lot.”

Matsuyama is the only Asian player on the International team. At No. 30 in the Official World Golf Ranking, he’s the continent’s only top-50 player and the only Japanese player in the OWGR’s top 100. He finished in the top 20 in the year’s final three majors, including top-10s at the U.S. Open (T-10) and The Open Championship (T-6).

He finished in the top 25 in all six PGA TOUR starts since turning professional, earning enough money to earn a PGA TOUR card for next season. He also won three times on the Japan Tour in 2013, most recently at the Fujisankei Classic on Sept. 5-8, and leads the tour's order of merit.

Matsuyama's countryman, Shigeki Maruyama, is one of the International Team's Captain's Assistants, the first Asian player to fill that role. He has helped mentor Matsuyama, giving him advice about competing in the United States.

“(Hideki) has a rare combination of physical strength and golfing talent that has never been seen before among Japanese golfers,” said Maruyama, a three-time PGA TOUR winner. He’s the only Japanese player to win multiple times on the PGA TOUR. "Hideki is mentally tough with a superior ability to focus and concentrate on the shot at hand."

Matsuyama's performance at some of the game's biggest tournaments confirms Maruyama's assessment. Matsuyama occasionally wears a logo depicting a cartoon penguin with half of an egg shell atop its head. It's the logo of the Tohoku Fukushi golf team; the head coach, Yasuhiko Abe, selected it because of penguins' patience and perseverance in trying conditions. He wants his team to display similar fortitude. Abe is a short, stocky man with a crew-cut haircut; he coached baseball before becoming Tohoku Fukushi's golf coach. He calls Matsuyama a “fighter” and a “bulldog.”

Said International Team Captain Nick Price, “He’s obviously got big-game temperament, no doubt. Playing the way he did at the U.S. Open and British Open as a rookie was simply amazing.”

Matsuyama was just 19 years old when he first competed in a major, the 2011 Masters, which he qualified for by winning the 2010 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. He finished T-27 to earn low-amateur honors, then made the cut in the 2012 Masters after winning a second consecutive Asia-Pacific Amateur.

“Playing in the Masters made me want to come back every year, and in order to do that I knew I had to practice more,” Matsuyama said. “All my practice sessions had that one goal in mind.”

Matsuyama will be tested in another big arena this week. He's the only player at the Presidents Cup who hasn’t previously completed at Muirfield Village. He’s gotten an early look at some of his top competition this week, though.

He played alongside Tiger Woods at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, Phil Mickelson at The Open Championship and Jason Dufner at the PGA Championship; all three went on to win that week. Matsuyama was there when Woods shoot 61 at Firestone and Dufner fired a record-tying 63 at Oak Hill. Matsuyama played with both Mickelson and Rory McIlroy for the first two rounds at Muirfield.

“I was really nearvous playing with Phil and Rory at the British Open, maybe because it was two of them, but with Tiger I felt more at ease and I wasn’t as nervous,” Matsuyama said through a translator.

Matsuyama learned the game from his father, Mikio, a scratch golfer. Mikio Matsuyama was his son's only instructor; Hideki still works without a formal coach. He's the sixth Japanese player to represent the International Team in the Presidents Cup. Ryo Ishikawa played in the past two Cups. Maruyama played in two Presidents Cups, going 5-0-0 in the International Team’s lone victory, at Royal Melbourne in 1998.

Matsuyama’s strong play this year has taken some of his homeland’s focus away from its other young star, Ishikawa, who struggled in 2013.

He finished 141st in the FedExCup. He regained his PGA TOUR card for the upcoming season with three top-10s in the four Tour Finals events, finishing 12th on the Tour Finals money list. Ishikawa compiled a 5-4-0 record in the 2009 and 2011 Presidents Cups, including a 2-0 singles record.

Comparisons between Japan’s two young stars are inevitable. Both won on the Japan Tour as amateurs. Ishikawa, who turned 22 on September 17, is five month older than Matsuyama. But there are also several marked differences.

Ishikawa, a 10-time Japan Tour winner, turned pro in 2008 at age 16 and became the youngest player to crack the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking when he did so in 2009. Ishikawa became a rock star in his home country because of his success at such a young age, his colorful clothing and long hair that often flows out from the top of his visor. He was nicknamed the “Bashful Prince.” He's fallen from 75th to 149th in the OWGR in 2013, though, as he struggled on the PGA TOUR. He made 13 of 23 cuts, and a T-10 at the HP Byron Nelson Championship was his only top-25.

Matsuyama played three seasons of college golf before turning pro, winning the World University Championship during his collegiate career. His fashion choices – he wore a simple black-and-white shirt in the second round of the Wyndham Championship, while Ishikawa wore a tight-fitting one with a Hawaiian pattern – bely a more reserved demeanor. Ishikawa is still Japan’s best-known active player among casual fans, according to Japanese journalists; Matsuyama's success, especially in the majors, has endeared him to avid golf fans. There is no rivalry between Ishikawa and Matsuyama, though. They often play practice rounds together.

"As far as ... taking over for Ishikawa, I haven't even thought about that," Matsuyama said. "All I'm doing is trying to play the best golf that I can, gain the experience that I need and just go out and play golf."

Japanese players not only have to adjust to a different culture in the United States, but overcome a language barrier and new grasses. Matsuyama'a translator, Bob Turner, is an American who served as a Mormon missionary in Japan. He played a year of college golf at Tokyo's Waseda University before becoming a translator in Japan. His past clients included former Presidents Cup players Maruyama and Joe Ozaki.

“Hideki has been able to succeed because he has a great passion for the game,” Turner said. Matsuyama passed on a possible sightseeing trip in New York City after his 19th-place finish at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill, Turner said, because he wanted to head directly to North Carolina to begin preparing for the Wyndham Championship, his final TOUR event of the season.

“He wanted to come right down, rest up and then practice hard on Tuesday. He just has that type of mindset.”

Matsuyama is set on playing alongside Ishikawa in the United States. He's scheduled to play the season-opening Open next week in northern California. The majority of his tournaments in 2014 will be played in the United States, he said.

First there's the Presidents Cup, though.

The International Team is seeking just its second victory. Another Japanese player, Maruyama, was the leader that time. Now he'll help a young countryman prepare.

"I will tell him play each match as if it were his last and not to leave anything on the course," Maruyama said. "At the same time, I'll tell him not to put pressure on himself but to enjoy the great opportunity it is to play in the Presidents Cup on the International Team."