Hideki - Not Ryo - Could be Golf's Next Big Japanese Import

By: Marino Parascenzo


The world of golf pauses, breathless, at the reports that Rory and Caroline are Splitsville, and the questions rage. Really? Is it true? And if it is, did Rory dump Caroline or did Caroline dump Rory? And why?

At this time of trauma, it will be a relief to turn everyone's attention for the moment to a different matter - the emergence of yet another phenom du jour, and this one's from Japan. No, not Ryo Ishikawa. He's 22 and not phenom anymore, much less du jour.

This one is Hideki Matsuyama, age 21, and how much of a phenom is he? Well, the Golf Channel told of two interesting little episodes at the Frys.com Open last week, in which some 19 Japanese media representatives showed up to cover Matsuyama and Ishikawa. The full corps turned out to watch Matsuyama on the first tee. Forty minutes later, Ishikawa - darling of the Japanese media since he turned pro in 2008 at age 16 - drew about one-third of that overseas' press contingent. Later in the round, about 15 media types were tailing Matsuyama. Ishikawa had three.

This isn't fickleness. This is news.

Ishikawa, who has won big in Japan but hasn't cracked an egg in the U.S., has been in a rut. Now there's this new kid on the block. The question was inevitable - has Matsuyama knocked Ishikawa off the corner?

"I've only been a pro for really just a couple of months," Matsuyama said, through an interpreter. "And as far as . . . shouldering or taking over for Ishikawa, I haven't even thought of that. All I'm doing is trying to play the best golf that I can."

There are marked differences. Ishikawa is given to bright clothes with splashes of colors and vigorous patterns, which must be why the Japanese media nicknamed him the "Bashful Prince." Matsuyama leans mostly to grays. So compared to Ishikawa's multi-colored splendor, the media whirl of McIlroy and the prison-orange of Rickie Fowler, Matsuyama is as quiet as a church mouse. Then came that performance at the recent Presidents Cup.

If Matsuyama really has the chops he's been flashing, there's quite a nifty ride ahead of him.

It started when he won the 2011 Taiheiyo Masters on the Japan Tour as a 19-year-old amateur. He also played twice in the real Masters. To get a sense of what the guy has done since, here's a little something for perspective:

Matsuyama was invited to the PGA Tour's Sony Open last January and missed the cut. He was still an amateur. From there, his story raises a question: What's Japanese for pumpkin?

He turned pro just last April. In 10 starts on the Japan Tour he tied for 10th in his debut, won the next tournament, won two others a little later, had a second, a tie for second, a tie for fourth and a share of seventh. And earned $1.1 million.

Back on the 2013 PGA Tour, thanks to various invitations and through qualifying, Matsuyama played six more events. He wasn't invited to the Masters, but was a fixture in the other majors - tied for 10th in the U.S. Open, tied for sixth in the British Open, and shared 19th in the PGA Championship. His worst finish in this PGA Tour stretch was a tie for 21st in the Bridgestone Invitational. His $771,640 in winnings made him a member of the tour for the new 2013-14 wraparound season, which started with the Fry's.com. (Where, incidentally, he tied for third. Ishikawa tied for 21st.)

It was Matsuyama's play on the Japan Tour that qualified him for the Presidents Cup - the youngest member of the International Team, and on that global stage is where he made the world take notice.

It was opening day, the second match in better-ball (formally, four-ball), and he and Australia's Adam Scott couldn't get their head up against Americans Bill Haas and Webb Simpson. Scott squared the match once, but they were running out of holes, 1-down coming to the par-3 16th. There, Matsuyama put his tee shot to 11 feet, made the birdie and got the match to all-square. But the Americans retook the lead at the 17th. Scott and Matsuyama were one hole from losing.

Muifield Village's 18th is a tough, uphill dogleg-right to a hillside green swamped by spectators. Not a reassuring sight for a rookie. Scott and Simpson bunkered their seconds. Haas was on, 26 feet away. And Matsuyama rocked the place.

He had 161 yards. He stuck it to two feet.

"Not that I was scared," he said, through an interpreter, "but I knew Adam was going to follow me, and I aimed at the pin, and if I missed, I missed, and I knew he would hold me up."

The Americans weren't about to concede this one, not with the match on the line. The rookie would have to make the birdie. He did, halving the match. Matsuyama went on to a 1-3-1 record, but he'd left his mark.

Japanese pros have had some interesting careers. Isao Aoki and his magical putter, with the nose up, won once on the PGA Tour and scared Jack Nicklaus in the 1980 U.S. Open. The three Ozaki brothers were hard to figure. Jumbo, the big brother, made his name in Japan and pretty much kept it there. Jet didn't do much, and Joe, the kid brother, played in 185 PGA Tour events but didn't win, then went to the Champions Tour. Tommy Nakajima was best known for making a 13 out of the water at No. 13 in the 1978 Masters and then, later that year at St. Andrews, leaving his chances for the British Open in the infamous bunker at the par-4 Road Hole. He made 9.

Can Matsuyama top them? His performances so far this year say he ought to bear watching.

There seems to be a pattern among young golfers that they play hard, even desperately, to make the cut. Like survivors grabbing for a life preserver. And then their scores go up. Maybe it's a relief that they made it. Maybe they aren't yet able to keep the pressure on themselves for the last two rounds. Whatever, their scores go up.

That hasn't been the case with Matsuyama to any great degree. He's been a strong closer. Maybe it's hunger. Maybe savvy. On the Japan Tour his last two rounds were lower than the first two in three of his nine finishes. Three others were very close, and a four-shot differential was the greatest otherwise. He was even stronger in his first six starts on the PGA Tour. He closed lower in three of them, including a whopping five strokes better in the U.S. Open at rugged Merion.

"I still left some shots out there," he said.

At the Frys.com Open last week, he opened with 70-66 and closed with 68-66.

Adam Scott came away from the Presidents Cup impressed with Matsuyama. "For sure he's the future of Asian golf," Scott said (then added, almost as a polite aside, "along with Ryo").

But there is the language barrier. Matsuyama needs an interpreter. Said Scott: " 'Good shot' is the international language. Everyone understands that."

Marino Parascenzo can assure you that hanging around with great and famous pro golfers does nothing to help your game. They just won't give you the secret. But it makes for a dandy career. As a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (now retired), Parascenzo covered the whole gamut of sports - Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Penn State and others - but golf was his favorite. As the beat writer for the paper, he covered all the stateside majors and numerous other pro events, and as a freelancer handled reporting duties for the British Open and other tournaments overseas - in Britain, Spain, Italy, the Caribbean, South Africa, China and Malayasia. Marino has won more than 20 national golf-writing awards, along with state and regional honors. He has received the Memorial Tournament's Golf Journalism Award and the PGA of America's Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, among them Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and in anthologies and foreign publications. He also wrote the history of Oakmont Country Club. Parascenzo is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America and is on its board of directors. He is the founder and chairman of the GWAA's Journalism Scholarship Program. He is a graduate of Penn State and was an adjunct instructor in journalism at Pitt.


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