20 October 2021: Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama hopes that competing in front of his adoring fans will provide a much needed boost for him to contend at the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP when the US$9.95 million PGA TOUR tournament tees off on Thursday.
The home hero, who became the first Japanese male golfer to win a major in April, is one of the star attractions at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club this week alongside Olympic Games gold medallist Xander Schauffele, World No. 3 Collin Morikawa, five-time TOUR winner Rickie Fowler and last season’s Rookie of the Year, Will Zalatoris.
Following three starts in the new 2021-22 Season where he posted a lone top-10, Matsuyama, who was runner-up to Tiger Woods here in 2019, conceded he was struggling to find his best form. “To be honest my game is not in a good shape but I am competing in my home country so I am motivated to be in contention,” he said on Wednesday.
“I am happy to play in Japan but bringing my best game here is more important. Honestly, I was not really in contention (much) in the last season. I could win at the Masters, but overall, I was not consistent. Again, I was not consistent at the two events in Las Vegas (where he finished T59 and T67) so hopefully I can find my momentum. Ball striking, putting, chipping … all of these have not reached the level I want. If I scored 10 out of 10 at the Masters, now I would say my score is less than one.”
World No. 5 Schauffele is aiming for a Japanese double by adding the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP title to the gold medal he won at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in August. With his maternal grandparents living in Japan, he has plenty of motivation to live up to his star billing. “I’m very excited. I was bummed to not come to Japan last year for the ZOZO so I was happy to make my return for the Olympics. Then of course winning the gold medal was really special,” said Schauffele, a four-time PGA TOUR winner. “Winning here would be really cool. It would be special to sort of win twice in Japan, especially since I don’t live here. I think it would be a huge honour for my family.”
He acknowledged that Matsuyama will no doubt be the star attraction in the third edition of the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP, which has been won previously by Woods at Narashino in 2019 and Patrick Cantlay last year when the tournament moved to Sherwood Country Club in California due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schauffele will play alongside Matsuyama and Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan, the Olympic Games bronze medallist, in the opening two rounds.
“Obviously Hideki’s the hometown boy and the hometown hero. So no matter what I do, if the Olympics were in Japan for the rest of my life and I won every time, I think Hideki would still be the No. 1 guy. They’re so crazy about golf and they love the sport, and I think us two playing in a group together will bring out as many people as possible and they’ll be happy to watch some good golf,” he said.
With a limit of 5,000 fans allowed on the golf course daily, Morikawa, who is a two-time major winner, is keen to put on a show as he did last week when he finished runner-up at THE CJ CUP @ SUMMIT in Las Vegas. “These are some of the best fans. Obviously I was here earlier for the Olympics and we didn’t have anyone and it just felt dull. It has a different feeling when you have fans. I remember my first tee shot out here two years ago when there was fans on stools and lined up five, six people deep. They would cheer for you walking to tee boxes, hitting every tee shot whether it’s good or bad,” said Morikawa.
“It’s enjoyable because they really understand the game, they appreciate us coming over and we appreciate them. They bring so much energy. It’s really cool to win obviously when you’re playing on the PGA TOUR, but when you have the opportunity to win outside the U.S., the few places when we do play outside, to add that to the resume would be pretty cool.”
Fowler, whose grandfather is Japanese, is equally excited to be in Japan for the first time since 2015. He enjoyed a return to form last week where he led into the final round in Vegas before finishing tied third, which drew a message of support from golf legend Jack Nicklaus on social media.
“It’s awesome. I’m very lucky to have a close friendship with Jack and his wife, Barbara. He’s been very encouraging over the years and the times that I’ve gotten to spend with him. To get kind of a stamp of approval or Jack’s encouraging words is definitely, it’s always nice,” said Fowler.
He was especially pleased with his ball-striking last week and hopes to keep his foot on the pedal as he chases a sixth TOUR win. “I played very well tee to green. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a very good feel on the greens with speed, so that was where I struggled a little bit,” he said.
Fowler added that the TOUR’s return to Asia for the first time since 2019 bodes well for the game’s growth. “I think it’s very important … the Asian market in general is a very big market for the golf space. The fans are great, they love seeing guys travel to come play in Asia wherever it may be. And then especially for me to come back to Japan and play here, I feel like I have great fan support.”