For many years, players of Asian descent have been prominent on the LPGA Tour, particularly those from Korea. There are a number of reasons, each worthy of more discussion.
Serious junior programs are available to young girls in those countries and embraced by parents. The women’s game is not as much about strength and distance. Asian women can compete with accuracy, consistency and dedication.
What’s more, they had a hero and testimony to embrace. When she won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998, South Korean Se Ri Pak became a figurehead and inspiration to all Asian girls. A Tiger Woods poster was on every aspiring player’s wall at the time. But Pak was gender-specific, a walking, breathing example for young girls in that part of the world that anything was possible.
Some think the Asian invasion has reduced interest in the LPGA. Maybe on some levels, for North American audiences, there’s some truth to that. But you can argue a convincing flip side that, through the influx of players, corporate sponsors and global interest, the transition has saved the women’s tour.
On the men’s side of the tees, the Asian penetration has been far less reaching. But that might be changing. The hottest name in golf right now is not Jason Day, Jordan Spieth or Rory McIlroy … and certainly not Woods. It’s Hideki Matsuyama.
By winning the Phoenix Open in a Sunday playoff, for the second year in a row, Matsuyama secured his fifth victory in his last nine overall starts. Granted, the streak is somewhat disjointed, starting at the end of last year and continuing into this calendar. But it’s a stretch that is reminiscent of the streak in which Woods won seven in succession from 2006-07.
At the mummified old age of 24, Matsuyama is the first Japanese player to have four career wins on the PGA Tour. Moreover, he might be in the process of becoming the beacon for young Asians that has been missing on the men’s side.
One thing is certain, Matsuyama is no Shigeki Maruyama, Ryo Ishikawa or Shingo Katayama-come-lately.
Maruyama, now 47, won three times on the PGA Tour before losing his card and going back to Japan. Katayama, 44, has never won a PGA Tour event. He had two fourth-place finishes in majors, including the 2009 Masters, and became most recognizable for his wacky cowboy hats. Ishikawa, 25, is 0 for 131 PGA Tour starts.
None of those three exceeds 160 pounds or 5-feet-9. None has the power game the 5-11, 200-pound Matsuyama possesses.
Matsuyama is averaging more than 305 yards a drive, muscling up with the best of them. And what he is doing is not a complete surprise. In 2012, Matsuyama reached No. 1 in the amateur world rankings. After turning professional in 2013, he had six top-25s in seven PGA Tour events, including a T6 at the 2013 British Open.
That record allowed him to pass “GO” – aka Q-school – and go directly to the PGA Tour based on earnings. In 2014, he won the Memorial Tournament, becoming the first Japanese player to win a Tour championship since Ryuji Imada in 2008. Matsuyama was then fifth at the 2015 Masters and 2-1-1 for the Internationals during the 2015 President’s Cup.
Last year, he beat Rickie Fowler in a similar playoff in Phoenix and later won the WGC-HSBC Champions, holding off close pursuers like Henrik Stenson, McIlroy and Bill Haas. No, what Matsuyama is doing is no fluke, and what he is capable of doing has no ceiling. He has moved to No. 5 in the world rankings, and there is every reason to believe – even anticipate – he can win a major championship, maybe plural.
There is just one qualifying factor — the putter. As he demonstrated on the final holes of regulation at TPC Scottsdale, the flatstick is Matsuyama’s ball and chain. He missed from 15 feet on No. 16, from 10 feet on 17. Then on 18, with a chance to lock it up, he left an 18-footer one roll short.
Since he came on the scene, Matsuyama is annually top-10 in PGA Tour statistics for strokes gained from tee to green. But in 2014, he was 156th in total putting, 163rd from inside 10 feet. In 2015, he was 93rd in total putting, 82nd from 4-8 feet. Last year, he was 103rd in strokes gained putting, an unsightly 148th from 4-8 feet.
In short — sorry, poor choice of words — Matsuyama leaves himself little margin around the greens. While winning in Phoenix on Sunday, he finished T2 in greens in regulation and second in proximity to the hole. When he won the same tournament last year, he was first and T6 in those categories. There weren’t a lot of jump shots in there. He scored from the paint.
Matsuyama may never be a great putter. But if he ever gets hot with the putter, or even more consistently competent, watch out.
He is the first Asian player on the PGA Tour to brandish this much game. Others are sure to follow.