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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Nosferatu is golf’s Olympic rankings guru. Who is he?

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — If a male golfer wants to know where he stands in Olympic qualifying, he asks the Dracula emoji.

A Twitter account with the name Nosferatu, handle @VC606 and bio, “Undead and OWGR guru” publishes an updated Olympic golf ranking following significant tournaments during the PGA Tour season. That’s in addition to weekly regular ranking projections, impressively before the complex-math Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) is updated.

Neither the OWGR nor the International Golf Federation publishes true Olympic qualifying rankings, which are derived from the same formula as the OWGR. The OWGR uses a two-year, rolling window of tournaments. The Olympic qualifying rankings use tournaments from June 2018 to June 2020, a significant difference.

The IGF does post a version of Olympic qualifying rankings on its website, but they are taken from the current OWGR, which includes tournaments from 2017 and early 2018 that were not part of Olympic qualifying. They are not as accurate as Nosferatu’s Olympic qualifying rankings, which are a projection of the OWGR on June 22, 2020, the cutoff date to select the 60-man Olympic field.

“We haven’t considered this situation until now, but on reflection we prefer our current method,” an IGF official said.

For example, Brooks Koepka would be in the Olympic field if chosen by today’s OWGR, thanks to his 2018 U.S. Open and PGA Championship victories. But the current projected June 22, 2020 OWGR has him outside the top four Americans and thus an Olympic alternate.

“Looking at the current ranking, obviously Koepka is up there, and the points that he earned in those two majors he won last year, still account for about 36 percent of all his points [in the current OWGR],” Nosferatu said by phone. “But by the time the deadline comes for the Olympics, those two majors, I calculated, will only account for around two percent. So it’ll be almost irrelevant at that time [June 22, 2020] the fact that he won those two majors, unless he wins some new ones, of course…”

If it sounds like it might take a mathematician to decipher the differences and the correct ranking, you would be right.

Nosferatu said his first name is Vince and that he’s lived in the Dublin area for 30 years, working in academia and research with a science and technology background.

“Whatever I do, it involves a lot of math,” he said.

Why Nosferatu and @VC606 and not his real name?

“Because I still have my day job,” Vince said. “It’s not something that I want to be seen, necessarily, all the time that I’m spending on it [on projecting rankings]. So for the time being I will keep it this way.”

Vince was not an avid golfer growing up. Not until he became transfixed watching the 1996 Masters, famous for Nick Faldo making up a six-stroke deficit to beat a choking Greg Norman by five shots.

“Then, obviously, the next year it was Tiger,” Vince said. He was hooked.

His golf rankings obsession began on a BBC message board about a decade ago, after Tiger Woods’ philandering came to light.

Those on the forum wondered when Woods would fall out of the No. 1 ranking during a competition break and, upon returning, un-Tiger-like results. Vince was intrigued, and, having joined the forum around Halloween, made his handle Prince Dracula.

When he signed up for Twitter in 2011, that handle was taken.

He chose @VC606 for his initials and the number attached to BBC’s online sports forums that shut down in 2011. And dropped Dracula for Nosferatu, the title of a 1922 silent horror film, keeping the vampire link.

Not wanting to reveal his secrets, Vince will only say that he set up software to calculate the top 10 in the world and would post the projections on the BBC message board.

“After a few weeks I started to get confidence,” he said. “I put more time into it. I moved to top 20 after a couple of months, then top 50, which is critical, and it just grew from there.”

Now, Vince posts an updated OWGR every week on Twitter, before the rankings refresh on OWGR.com. Vince’s are limited to the top names and those who made significant jumps with top-five finishes at tournaments around the world, but his software calculates the ranking for hundreds of golfers.

He also projects Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup qualifying standings and where golfers have to finish to, for instance, take over or retain the No. 1 ranking.

“I’m not an expert in golf as such as a game, but I’m a passionate fan and an observer, with a bit of math background,” he said.

Vince inputs results into his software — what he calls “an engine” — from the major worldwide tours every Sunday. If he’s on his game, it can take fewer than 10 minutes combined for the PGA and European tours. He could automate that part of the process but prefers the knowledge accumulation of doing it by hand. Tournaments are weighted by strength of field and recency, which means ranking points from a specific result fade before extinguishing altogether after two years.

“The ranking system is not complicated in terms of math, but it’s very complex, and the complexity makes it probably so scary to many,” he said. “But the basic math, for somebody who has some math background, it’s nothing to be scared about.”

Sasha Forster, secretary for the OWGR technical committee, said the organization is aware of Nosferatu.

“The Twitter OWGR guru,” Forster called him, repeating the Twitter bio. “OWGR, to our knowledge, has not had any communication directly with him. We receive contact from many fan statisticians around the world from our website and feedback.”

Forster added that everything needed for a fan to calculate the rankings is available on the site.

But as far as Vince knows, he is the only person doing the math — and publishing those results publicly — before the rankings are updated on OWGR.com every Sunday night. He noted the OWGR has its flaws, and he doesn’t know anybody with the organization, but he is a fan and likes the system.

“I’m probably something like an unofficial sort of PR guy for them,” he joked (the OWGR’s Twitter account, launched in April 2016, has 4,647 followers to Vince’s 8,399). “In the end I keep telling people, you can trust what I say, as I’m pretty confident my predictions are right, but you should still go out there Monday morning on OWGR.com and check if you really want to be safe.”

Vince’s Twitter followers include Justin Rose and Justin Thomas. Another notification was particularly memorable.

“A few years ago, I was somewhere in the mountains in Austria, skiing,” he said. “I woke up in the morning, and I was staying in a sort of chalet somewhere with bad wifi. It was the weekend, and I needed to do some checking on the rankings. The first thing I saw was an email telling me that Rory McIlroy was following me. I was obviously very happy!”

Open champion Francesco Molinari has tweeted at Vince, asking for his ranking projection. Twice.

“Obviously he’s very good at what he does,” Molinari said as he prepared for this week’s PGA Championship at Bethpage Black. “He’s the only one, as far as I know, that gives immediate feedback on the world rankings at the end of events. That’s pretty much all I know about him.”

Vince declined to say which golfers contact him the most but acknowledged his Twitter direct message box is pretty busy. Google “Nosferatu” and “golf,” and you’ll find media citing his work.

“He’s sort of earned his own reputation as the go-to guy, even if he is this sort of mysterious figure behind this Twitter account,” Golf Channel senior writer Rex Hoggard said.

What Vince will admit to is imperfection.

Last year, he projected Ian Poulter to make the Masters field if the Englishman reached the quarterfinals of the World Golf Championships-Match Play. But Vince had a miscalculation, forgetting to note another golfer’s withdrawal from an earlier tournament that impacted Poulter’s projection.

By the time Vince realized his mistake, Poulter had already been told that his reaching the quarterfinals was enough to get him to Augusta. But then 10 minutes before his quarterfinal match, Poulter was told about the correction and went on to get drubbed 8 and 6 by Kevin Kisner.

Vince was relieved when, the following week, Poulter won the Houston Open to grab the last available spot in the Masters.

“It made me feel really bad at first when it happened, but then he turned it around brilliantly by winning the following week, and that made me feel much better,” Vince said (Poulter appeared light-hearted in retrospect). “Mistakes will still happen sometime, but in fairness I think they are getting less and less.”

Vince said nobody has helped him with ranking projections in an official capacity, but he would be interested if an offer came to financially back a deep dive into what rankings would have looked like before the OWGR started in 1986.

“There is a lot of interest how you compare the performance of somebody like Tiger and somebody like Jack Nicklaus,” he said.

Vince has attended a few tournaments, including the Masters, the Ryder Cup and the Open Championship at St. Andrews. But he’s never approached a golfer in real life and unmasked his identity.

“Many of them I’ve had short conversations with on Twitter every now and then,” Vince said. “Some of them probably would be interested to see who I am. I haven’t been tempted to try and go to meet them yet, but who knows, it may happen someday.”

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Tokyo Olympics an end goal for the American behind Japan sports icons

Bob Turner, Hideki Matsuyama
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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — As the Tokyo Olympics near and interest generates in Japanese sports culture, an American father and son offer unique perspectives as right-hand men for two of Japan’s greatest athletes.

Bob Turner and his son, Allen, made a business out of acclimating Japan’s sports stars to life in the United States.

For decades, Japanese athletes could easily become icons without leaving the archipelago. Now, most of their time is spent in other countries, and mostly the U.S.

“It’s not just about becoming No. 1 in Japan,” said Bob Turner, a 66-year-old who has managed Japan’s best golfers on the PGA Tour for the last three decades, plus juggled work with Ichiro Suzuki in his early Seattle Mariners years. “They want to participate on the world stage and do very well at it.”

Bob was born in Washington, played high school golf in Northern California and attended BYU before a two-year Mormon mission to Japan, arriving in Sapporo in October 1972, eight months after it hosted the Winter Games.

Bob met his wife, Hiroko, and found his calling working for a sports promotion company, recruiting athletes for golf, tennis and marathon events. The list included Sam Snead, Billy Casper and Seve Ballesteros.

The family, including then-10-year-old Allen and his younger sister, Mika, moved back to the U.S. in 1987.

“It was time for them to be introduced to American culture,” Bob said.

Bob continued his work with golfers, but his role shifted from recruiting the world’s best to Japan to welcoming Japan’s best to the PGA Tour.

In 1993, Bob got a call from Naomichi “Joe” Ozaki, who decided to start playing regularly on the PGA Tour after winning 21 times on the Japan Golf Tour.

For the next eight years, Bob took care of Ozaki’s logistics and traveled with him to every tournament in the U.S. When Ozaki left the tour in 2001, Bob performed similar duties for Japan’s star of the 2000s, Shigeki Maruyama, for eight years.  

Bob has traveled with Japan’s current No. 1, Hideki Matsuyama, since he came over to the PGA Tour in 2013.

But the Turners are best known for their work in baseball. For five years, Bob managed baseball and golf clients. The biggest name on that list, and the biggest name in all Japanese sports, was Ichiro.

That’s where Allen comes in. In 1999, a Seattle Mariners scout whom Allen knew from high school ball said the team was going to sign Japanese pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki. The club was looking for somebody to not only interpret and translate but also handle some on-field baseball work.

Allen, who began playing baseball in Japan at age 5, interviewed and got the job. The next season, the Mariners signed Ichiro. Allen and/or Bob has spent most of the last 19 MLB seasons with Ichiro. Allen moved with him to New York and Miami before last year’s return to Seattle and this year’s retirement. Ichiro still works for the Mariners’ front office, so Allen remains with the team, too.

Baseball will be played at the Olympics next year for the first time since 2008, but Ichiro has ruled out interest in suiting up.

MLB players are not expected to take part (they weren’t in baseball’s previous iteration, either). Japan’s roster should be made up of stars from the Nippon Professional league, perhaps the world’s second-best.

“That’s come up a lot, and [Ichiro] always, always says he respects Olympics,” Allen said, “but he believes that the Olympics should be for the amateurs, and the best amateurs go and participate in the Games.”

“Respect” and “honor” are two words that Americans often associate with Japanese sports.

Recall images of Japanese spectators at the FIFA World Cup cleaning up after themselves with trash bags in the stands.

In 2008, healthy Japanese gymnast Koki Sakamoto was withdrawn from the Olympic all-around final to give the spot to team leader Hiroyuki Tomita, who had scored five hundredths fewer in qualifying.

“[Sakomoto], I’m sure, felt it was the honorable thing to do,” NBC Olympics analyst Tim Daggett said at the time, noting his knowledge of Japanese sports from being coached by Makoto Sakamoto at UCLA.

“It’s a vertical society in Japan, where America is more horizontal where everyone is on the same level,” Bob said. “In Japan, it’s not that anybody’s better than anybody else, but if someone is older than you, you show them respect.”

That manifested in Allen’s childhood baseball days, when he woke up before dawn, rode his bike to the local diamond, practiced for an hour and then went to school.

The Turners lived near venerable Koshien Stadium, which opened a decade after Wrigley Field and hosts the national high school championship.

Allen idolized Randy Bass, a first baseman who bounced around five MLB clubs in six seasons before moving to the Hanshin Tigers, where he set the league’s single-season batting-average record (.389) that Ichiro could not break.

In 1985, Bass was one home run from tying the legendary Sadaharu Oh’s single-season record of 55 going into the last game. Facing a club managed by Oh, Bass reportedly drew four walks in five plate appearances

“To have somebody from America be that successful and a superstar was pretty cool,” Allen said. “Me being an American in Japan, even though I didn’t speak English, I looked different. The kids knew I was different.”

They were taught the same.

“[Allen] learned from a young age that you don’t argue with an umpire,” Bob said. “At the beginning of the game, you’ll take off your batting helmet when you go up to bat and tip it to the umpire. You don’t spit on the field. When your cleats touch the playing field, you’re running. You’re not walking or loafing. It’s dishonoring the game if you did. At the end of the game, you line up and everyone bows to the other team, you take off your hat and you say nice game. You do the same to the umpire.”

Ichiro, too, was brought up that way.

“Ichiro never threw a bat or threw a glove because it disrespects the maker of that bat or the maker of that glove that took a long time,” Bob said. “Not to say that Japan sports culture is better than here in the United States. I’m just saying that the culture of honor and respect is more demanded, I think, in Japan.”

Bob still goes back to Japan about twice a year. Since Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Games in 2013, he’s noticed storefronts with Olympic merchandise.

A 2018 survey published by Central Research Services in Japan showed that its most popular athletes were, in order, baseball players Shohei Ohtani and Ichiro, followed by figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu and tennis player Kei Nishikori.

A Japanese media research and analysis company recently reported that Hanyu received the most hours of major TV coverage of any athlete in 2018. He was followed by Ohtani, tennis player Naomi Osaka and then three more PyeongChang Olympic medalists.

“The Tokyo [1964] Olympics, Sapporo [1972], Nagano [1998], you still see documentaries about those,” Bob said. “More so than here in the United States, the Olympics are revered in Japan.”

Bob has never been to an Olympics. Neither has his primary client, Matsuyama, Japan’s top-ranked golfer the last five years who withdrew ahead of Rio due to Zika virus concerns. Matsuyama is planning on going to Tokyo. Bob is, too.

“That’s the finish line for me, hopefully,” Bob said.

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