Matsuyama hopes torrid play continues in Augusta

The first time Hideki Matsuyama showed up at the Masters as a 19-year-old amateur, his expectation bar was set on low.

“I was just hoping to be able to play four days,” he said of his debut when he tied for 27th to claim the low amateur medal. “In reality, I just didn’t want to embarrass myself in two days.”

Now 25 and already making his sixth Masters start as the highest-ranked Japanese golfer in history, Matsuyama has more than pride on the line when he shows up at Augusta National. Back-to-back top 10s in his last two Masters starts fuels hope that he can bring a green jacket to the only inhabited continent without one.

“The expectations of people around me are high,” Matsuyama said. “I don’t really worry too much about that. Hopefully not put too much pressure on myself. But I know that other people expect a lot of me, and so all I can do is just try my best.”

Bob Turner, Matsuyama’s American manager who spends every working moment with his client, says the world’s No. 4 player carries the hopes of Japan on his young shoulders.

“This year I know all of Japan is not only cheering for him but almost expecting him to play well,” Turner said. “That’s the name of the game and you try to block everything out and count them one at a time and hopefully at the end it’ll be good enough.”

Matsuyama has been more than good enough to beat the world’s best in almost every port for months leading into the Masters. After finishing fifth in the Tour Championship last year, Matsuyama went on a global tear finishing first (four times) or second (twice) in his next six starts in Japan, Malaysia, China, the Bahamas and Hawaii.

In October, he became the first Asian player to win a World Golf Championship event, running away from the field by seven strokes in Shanghai. In February, he defended his title with a playoff victory in Phoenix to pass Shigeki Maruyama for most wins (four) by a Japanese golfer in PGA Tour history.

His 11 career victories have elevated him to a No. 4 world ranking, higher than anything Hall of Famer Jumbo Ozaki ever achieved as the most dominant player in Japan Tour history.

“Speechless,” he said after winning the biggest title of his career at the WGC event to match the records of Maruyama and Ozaki before later surpassing them.

“Shigeki Maruyama is a good friend of mine, and he always said that I was going to pass his records,” Matsuyama said. “Great respect for Jumbo-san (Ozaki). Jumbo-san is what I call him. Historically, his records probably anyone will never come close to. I played with him once on the Japan Tour. At the time, I probably didn’t realize how great he has been to the game of golf in Japan. But since turning pro and going over the records and seeing all that he’s done, I have nothing but great, great respect for him.”

It’s Matsuyama, however, that has the best traveled game of any Japanese player. His run of success has only driven him to achieve more.

“Becoming No. 1 in the world is the goal, I think, of all of us out here,” he said. “I still have some weak links in my game that I have to work on, but hopefully little by little, I’ll be able to improve and to fix what I need to, and hopefully some day compete for No. 1. … I know there’s a lot of guys, great players ahead of me. It just gives me more incentive to work harder.”

Last year’s seventh-place finish at Augusta only further boosted his confidence after finishing fifth in 2015. He played in the next-to-last group on Sunday with two-time champion Bernhard Langer, just two strokes behind 54-hole leader Jordan Spieth.

Matsuyama, however, bogeyed the first and played the opening six holes in 4-over par after a bogey-bogey-double stretch on 4-5-6 to fall well off the pace. But he made three birdies the rest of the way for 73.

“Of course he was disappointed – he ran into some difficulties on the front nine but brought it in strong,” Turner said. “That experience, teeing up on Sunday with a chance to win, is just another step in learning a 24-year-old needs to have in order to someday win the green jacket.”

Winning a WGC event, Matsuyama said, “has got me closer to being able to compete a lot better in the major tournaments. So my next goal is, of course, to win a major and I’m going to do all that I can to prepare well for that.”

It’s not just any major, however, that Matsuyama wants. In Japan, The Masters is considered the premier golf event and he has felt a kinship with Augusta National and its membership ever since he won consecutive Asian Amateurs in 2010-11.

“He holds Augusta National Golf Club and the members in the highest esteem,” Turner said. “He said many, many times and most recently after winning the WGC in Shanghai, ‘The reason I’m here is because of the Asian Amateur and Augusta National Golf Club sponsoring and allowing me an opportunity to play as an amateur in the Masters.’ He will always be grateful and always have a special place in his heart and soul for Augusta National.”

Every year, Matsuyama’s reality gets closer to his desire as he grows more ready to win at Augusta.

“He’s always had high expectations of himself from the first Masters,” Turner said. “As he grows and matures and continues to work hard, I think there’s an increase in self-confidence that you need to win on tour and especially a major. You can’t just hope you’re going to win. You have to feel you’ve put the work in and are well-prepared and deserve to win.”