FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Should Hideki Matsuyama return to Kasumigaseki Country Club for the Tokyo Olympic golf tournament next year, he will be in familiar surroundings.
Matsuyama will go to the Games as one of Japan’s most recognizable Olympians, even if he may not be its most recognizable golfer. He will go to Kasumigaseki and be reminded of where it began.
In 2010, an 18-year-old Matsuyama won the Asian Amateur Championship at Kasumigaseki.
“Now I’m in the Masters,” Matsuyama, then a rising Tohoku Fukushi University sophomore, said that day, noting having watched Phil Mickelson win his third Masters earlier that year. “So that’s very exciting.”
Matsuyama, who became the first Japanese amateur to qualify for the Masters with that victory, went on to match Mickelson in 27th place at Augusta National the following April. That meant he joined Mickelson in Butler Cabin afterward as the low amateur for the tournament.
The first question to Matsuyama that evening, in his first live interview on major-network U.S. television, was about recent earthquakes in Japan. That included one off the Tohoku coast, the largest in the nation’s history, that killed more than 15,000 people. (The Tokyo 2020 torch relay will start in Fukushima, an area affected by that 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The first event of the Games next year will also be held in Fukushima.)
“There’s some hard times right now in Japan,” Matsuyama said then through translator Allen Turner, who is part of an American father-son combination that has managed Japan sports icons. “Hopefully, my play was able to bring some encouragement to those who are in need.”
Matsuyama was at a training camp in Australia at the time of the earthquake.
He returned to find his dorm room ravaged — his college hometown of Sendai “devastated beyond imagination” — and struggled to find food. He debated whether to play the Masters, a tournament he dreamed of since his first golf memories — watching replays of Tiger Woods‘ win in 1997.
“I have decided to play because so many people have pushed me; the people at my university who have suffered, and my teammates and my parents, who made me start to play the sport of golf,” he said before the tournament, later noting he planned to volunteer in recovery efforts upon returning home after the event.
Matsuyama won the Asian Amateur again in 2011, played the Masters again in 2012 and turned pro in 2013 while still a Tohoku student. In two weeks, he will mark six straight years as Japan’s top-ranked golfer, reaching as high as No. 2 in the world after his 2017 U.S. Open runner-up.
He’s expected to easily qualify as one of Japan’s two male golfers for the Tokyo Games. He’s been ranked in the top 30 since 2013, and no other countryman is in the current top 70.
It would be Matsuyama’s Olympic debut. He joined the horde of male golfers who skipped the Rio Games while citing Zika virus concerns. It was especially concerning for those who might start families, and Matsuyama’s wife gave birth in July 2017.
But he simply cannot pass up next summer’s opportunity. Matsuyama, who counts sponsors Lexus, Srixon, ANA, Oakley and Nomura Securities, must wear a baseball cap and keep his head down in Japanese airports, said his manager, Bob Turner (the other half of that father-son duo).
“I don’t know the numbers on how well-known an athlete, but he can’t walk down the street or go shopping or anything like that,” said Turner, who formerly worked with Ichiro Suzuki and Matsuyama’s Japanese predecessors on the PGA Tour.
A spring 2018 survey published by Central Research Services in Japan showed that Matsuyama was Japan’s fifth-most popular active athlete, trailing baseball players Shohei Ohtani and Ichiro, figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu and tennis player Kei Nishikori. Not that he cares about such things.
“We don’t know much about him, quite frankly,” said Reiko Takekawa, who covers golf for Kyodo News and is one of more than a dozen Japanese media members following him at the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black. “As far as I know, he’s a funny guy. Basically, he doesn’t talk much, even in Japanese.”
“The Mysterious Matsuyama,” a Golf.com headline read in 2017, leading with his love of sake, which became Matsuyama’s refrain when asked his interests outside golf. Takekawa said that Ryo Ishikawa, nicknamed the Bashful Prince and often compared to Rickie Fowler for his style, is more familiar to the average Japanese despite having a career-high rank of 29 and a current one of 253.
“The women like [Ishikawa],” Takekawa said, noting that Ishikawa has played more on Japan’s domestic tour than Matsuyama. “Hideki is really favored by the golf fans because he’s good. If you really don’t know the golf, somebody may not know him.”
Matsuyama respects the Olympics. He remembers Naoko Takahashi winning the marathon in Sydney in 2000. He’ll never forget when Japan captured the men’s gymnastics team title at the 2004 Athens Games, its first since a dynastic reign from 1960-76.
“The NHK TV announcer, his words still resonate with me,” Matsuyama said through his interpreter.
Matsuyama recalls when Tokyo was awarded the Games in an IOC vote over Madrid and Istanbul on Sept. 8, 2013. He earned his third tournament title as a professional later that day.
Matsuyama acknowledges that if he’s playing poorly next summer, the pressure come the Games will be heavy. But he also knows that most other Olympians are in a different place. He didn’t grow up dreaming of an Olympic gold medal, because golf wasn’t re-added to the Games until 2016.
“We have four majors every year that we try to peak for. The Olympic athletes, it’s once every four years, so I just can’t imagine the preparation, the training, all they put in for that one chance to win the gold medal,” he said. “I respect what they do very much.”
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