Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama looking for a gold medal to complement his Green Jacket
By Chuah Choo Chiang
For all that Hideki Matsuyama has achieved to honour his home country, delivering an Olympic gold medal in Paris 2024 would surely go a very long way to cement his legacy in the game and build on his historic Masters Tournament victory.
The Japanese superstar has flown his nation’s flag proudly over the past decade in the men’s game where he has won eight times on the PGA TOUR, which includes winning the famous Green Jacket at Augusta National in 2021. He was the first Japanese male golfer to savour victory in a major championship.
Matsuyama, 31, came agonisingly close to winning a medal when the Olympic Games were held in Tokyo in 2021. He was part of a wild seven-man playoff for the bronze at Kasumigaseki Country Club but bowed out early in the shoot-out following a bogey in the first playoff hole.
He was heartbroken after failing to deliver a much-desired result for a golf-mad country, especially after he had a birdie opportunity on his final hole in regulation play to secure a podium finish. However, it is almost certain the Tokyo disappointment will provide the fuel to fire him up for another challenge in Paris next summer.
“Since I was in contention, I was really hoping I could win a medal. I’m really disappointed I wasn’t able to realize that,” said Matsuyama, who had entered the final round in second place and one stroke off the lead.
“My goal was of course to win the gold. I knew if I had ended my round with birdie, I was going to get a bronze medal. I’m left with a frustration that I wasn’t able to convert the opportunities. I have no energy or endurance left at this point. But I kept fighting at the end with my heart. Unfortunately, I fell short at the end.”
Since bursting onto the scene with back-to-back wins in the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in 2010 and 2011, Matsuyama quickly built a reputation as one of the world’s leading golfers. With his rapid success on the PGA TOUR, he now jointly holds the record of having the most wins by an Asian golfer, alongside Korean great, K.J. Choi.
As a 22-year-old rookie, Matsuyama produced a stunning victory at the Memorial Tournament presented by Workday at Muirfield Village in 2014, and it proved to be his career launch pad in the United States. Jack Nicklaus, the Memorial Tournament host and holder of the record for the most major championship victories (18), has since become a big admirer of Matsuyama’s rise in the game.
“I've been blessed to spend a lot of time in Japan and I know they love the game of golf. I competed against the great Isao Aoki and know how revered he was and is. Hideki will also now forever be a hero to his country,” said Nicklaus in a tweet following Matsuyama’s win at the Masters.
“I was able to watch every shot and Hideki played beautifully. He kept cool and calm … the day and moment belongs to Hideki Matsuyama! This is a great day for him, for Japan, and for the global game of golf.”
Australian Adam Scott, a former Masters champion himself, has known Matsuyama since taking him under his wing when the latter featured in his first Presidents Cup in 2013. He predicts Matsuyama will continue to blaze the trail for Japanese and Asian golf.
“He's a bit like Tiger Woods to the rest of the world, Hideki in Japan,” said Scott. “He's obviously developed a lot. He's continued to win. I think he goes through his process very well and seems to have a pretty level head on his shoulders. He's quite an intense character, actually, even though we don't really see that, and obsessive about his game.”
As a child, Matsuyama idolised Tiger Woods and watched the American legend win the 1997 Masters on television and began dreaming about competing at the prestigious Augusta National Golf Club. He realised his childhood goal by winning the 2010 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, which the winner is invited to play in the Masters. The experience of competing on the hallowed turf at Augusta National marked the beginning of his American odyssey, which he now hopes many others will emulate.
“Hopefully I’ll be a pioneer, and many other Japanese will follow. I’m glad to be able to open the floodgates hopefully, and many more will follow me,” said Matsuyama following his Masters triumph.
Behind the trademark wraparound sunglasses, Matsuyama portrays himself as a man of mystery and is certainly a man of few words. Every shot he makes on the PGA TOUR is closely followed by the TOUR’s Japanese TV partners and he conducts interviews with Japanese media after every round, irrespective of whether he posted a 64 or 75.
Even then, he keeps his cards closely to his chest. Known for his privacy, he surprised the media back in 2017 by announcing he and his wife had welcomed their first born. The thing was, most media were not even aware he was married. “No one really asked me," Matsuyama said ruefully.
However, those who know Matsuyama well say he is funny, thoughtful and humble.
Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan, who won the bronze medal in Tokyo after prevailing in the play-off – which included Collin Morikawa and Rory McIlroy – said Matsuyama was an ideal partner when they partnered for the International Team in the 2019 Presidents Cup.
“He's kind of funny. The matches I played with him, I mean he was really serious but was always trying to lighten the mood at the same time. I think he knows what to do as he’s the veteran, but in general, he’s funny,” said Pan.
Whether or not Matsuyama realises his goal of earning an Olympic medal, his countryman, Shigeki Maruyama, who won three PGA TOUR tournaments before Matsuyama’s emergence, knows the latter has paved the way for others to follow in his footsteps.
“He gave us a big dream. That's what I think he did. Japan's experiencing a golf boom right now. Because of that, the number of junior golfers who want to become the next Hideki will increase for sure,” said Maruyama.
While the Green Jacket further propelled him as an international superstar, adding a gold medal to his resume would be another impressive – and colourful – reminder of the impact Matsuyama has made on the global golf scene.