Hideki Matsuyama
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Hideki Matsuyama, Japan’s top golfer, finds ties to Tokyo Olympics beyond the obvious

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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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Tommy Ford ends U.S. men’s World Cup drought at Beaver Creek

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Tommy Ford earned his first World Cup win at age 30 and ended the U.S. men’s longest victory and podium droughts in two decades.

Ford won the giant slalom in Beaver Creek, Colo., on Sunday, the last North American race on tour this season. He prevailed by eight tenths of a second combining times over two runs.

“It doesn’t beat doing it here. I’ve been working hard,” Ford, in his 86th World Cup start dating to 2009, said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “No secret, just kept it simple and really trusted what I was doing.”

Norwegians Henrik Kristoffersen and Leif Kristian Nestvold-Haugen were second and third. American Ted Ligety, fourth after the opening run, finished 11th.

Full results are here.

Ford became the first U.S. man to win a World Cup since Travis Ganong took a downhill on Jan. 27, 2017. He also became the first U.S. male podium finisher since Ligety in January 2018. Both were the longest droughts for the program since the late 1990s.

Ford, a 2010 and 2018 Olympian who missed the 2014 Olympics due to a broken femur, had been working toward this moment.

He finished a World Cup career-high fourth at the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. Last season, the Oregon native and former Dartmouth student had a pair of fifths.

The men’s World Cup moves to Val d’Isere, France, next weekend for a giant slalom and slalom.

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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