Hideki Matsuyama beat Kevin Na on the first playoff hole of the 2014 Memorial Tournament at Murifield Village in Dublin, Ohio. Ever since I saw him play in person in Phoenix, I thought this win was inevitable.
I first became aware of him last Fall when he was enjoying good finishes in a lot on big international tournaments which he had gotten into by virtue of his five victories on the Japan Tour. It happened sort of quietly; he was playing in the U.S. Open, British Open and and PGA Championship to little fanfare even though he had good finishes (T10, T6, T19).
He began this season with a T3 in the Fry’s.com in California and finally coaxed a post out of me in early December, “Hideki Matsuyama: Another Great Player From a Far Away Place.” That post was my mental note to take a look at him if he got to Phoenix and it was something else.
He has this distinctive pause at the top of his swing that could put you to sleep. He coils to the top of his swing, pauses, and then hurtles back through the ball in the same unhurried way that he paused at the top. It was impressive enough that I followed him on Thursday and again on Sunday after he’d worked his way into contention. He finished T4.
Jack Nicklaus, ever the affable host of the Memorial, sat in on Matsuyama’s media center session after his win. Nicklaus was clearly impressed too:
“I think we have a great winner. This young man’s going to win a lot of golf tournaments. First one in the United States. Gotta start somewhere.”
“We’re proud he’s our winner. I know that the Presidents Cup was here last year that he played in was a big help to him this week and got to learn the golf course, got to learn a lot about it.”
“But 22 years old. That’s how old I was when I won my first tournament. So I think he’s got a little time left.”
One of the things that made his finish so impressive was the fact that he broke his driver on the 18th tee in regulation. His tee shot ended up in the fairway, but he thought it was too far right off the club face. Disappointed, he gently slapped the tee with the bottom of the driver — we’ve all done it — and the shaft just seemed to fall apart about eight inches up from the head.
Since it was deemed to have been broken in normal use during the swing, he had the option of replacing it with a backup driver in the playoff, but he didn’t have one.
“Without a driver — it’s a tough enough hole, but without a driver it’s really tough, the 18th hole.”
“My tee shot, used a 3‑wood, caught the right fairway bunker. Had 196 yards to the pin. Hit a 5‑iron.”
Unfortunately, he hit a big slow hook into the gallery below the green, got a good kick off a lady’s knee to set him up for the dramatic finish.
The announcers pronounced him essentially screwed; he’d be lucky to get it within 15 feet from down there. He surprised all of us by hitting a high lob shot that came almost straight-down dead and stopped a ShotLink-certified 5 feet from the hole. Na, after an adventure in the left creek off the tee, had a putt for bogey that he never got a chance to make. Matsuyama made the putt for par and the win.
Even though Matsuyama hits it a long way and looks like a solid running back, his bio says he’s only 5’11” and 170 pounds. But he looks big to Nicklaus too:
“I thought his game has been pretty good for a long time. I remember watching him before the Presidents Cup here last year. I saw him play in a couple of tournaments, and I loved his tempo.”
“I think his size is larger than most of your Japanese players. Jumbo Ozaki was a big guy. Isao Aoki was tall but not as strong. Most of the guys that come from Japan are a little smaller. Ryo Ishikawa is a little smaller guy.”
“Hideki has the ability to be able to play golf courses well within himself and doesn’t have to push for distance and strength.”
“So his tempo is so good and his composure is — he’s very calm. When he knocked the ball in the water at 16 today, you just saw him bear down and try to play a better shot. I thought that showed a lot about him.”
“And I just think you’ve just seen the start of what’s going to be truly one of your world’s great players over the next 10 to 15 years.”
Hideki finished up by confirming that his father was his coach up until high school. After that, he was just on his own.
Q. Who fixes it when things go wrong?
“Nobody fixes it but me. (Laughter).”
At which point Jack chimed in:
“That makes — that right there will tell you why he’s going to be a good player.”
Who am I to argue with the great Jack Nicklaus?