By Dan O’Neill
Players of Asian descent, especially South Koreans, have promenaded on the LPGA for years. Their names often top leaderboards.
The explanation includes many layers. Comprehensive junior programs are available to young girls in many Asian nations and embraced by ambitious parents. The women’s game is not all about swing speed and distance. Women can hang with accuracy, consistency and dedication, traits that the Asian golfers tend to demonstrate in spades.
At the same time, the Asian women had a pilot light. When South Korean Se Ri Pak won the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open, she became an example and inspiration to girls across the continent. Although Pak emerged during Tiger Woods’ heyday, she stood out as a gender- and origin-specific heroine for young girls in Asia. Anything was possible.
Some observers – Jan Stephenson comes to mind – suggested that the ensuing Asian invasion has hurt the LPGA. Perhaps on some levels for North American audiences there’s some merit to that thought. However, the global expansion of players and corporate sponsors saved the women’s tour.
For the men’s game, the Asian emergence has been far less reaching. But that could be changing. The hottest name in golf is not Jason Day, Jordan Spieth or Rory McIlroy … and certainly not Woods. The man to beat is Hideki Matsuyama, from Matsuyama, Ehime prefecture, Japan.
By winning the Waste Management Phoenix Open on Feb. 5 in a playoff for the second consecutive year, Matsuyama secured a fifth victory in his past nine worldwide starts. On an obviously smaller scale, it is a stretch reminiscent of the seven-game winning streak constructed by Woods in 2006-07. After a week off, Matsuyama returns to the PGA Tour this week in the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
With a victory, he could vault from No. 5 to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking.
“It’s always been one of my goals,” Matsuyama said Tuesday, speaking with the aid of an interpreter, during his news conference at Riviera. “Whether it happens this week or next or sometime in the future, I’ll just keep working hard, and hopefully that will happen.”
Matsuyama, who turns 25 on Feb. 25, has become the first Japanese player to win four PGA Tour titles. In a bigger picture, he might be in the process of becoming the Pak-type inspiration that has been missing for young Asian males.
In 2012, Matsuyama was the world’s No. 1-ranked amateur. In 2013, he turned pro and posted six top-25s in seven PGA Tour events, including a T-6 at the British Open, meriting a Tour card based on his earnings. The next season, he won the Memorial Tournament, the first Japanese player to win on Tour since Ryuji Imada in 2008.
Last year, Matsuyama beat Rickie Fowler in a Phoenix playoff and later won the WGC-HSBC Champions, holding off pursuers such as Henrik Stenson, McIlroy and Bill Haas. There is every reason to think that Matsuyama, a sturdy 5-foot-11-inch, 200-pounder who averages 305 yards off the tee, can win a major championship or two.
One thing stands in his way: the putter. He is annually among the best on Tour for strokes gained tee to green. But in 2014, he was 163rd in putting from inside 10 feet. In 2015, he was 82nd at 4-8 feet. Last year, he was 103rd in strokes gained putting overall, an unsightly 148th at 4-8 feet.
Matsuyama leaves himself no margin for error around the greens. While winning in Phoenix, he ranked T-2 in greens in regulation and second in proximity to the hole.
It’s fair to say that he’ll never be Spieth on the greens, and for that reason, he will be a favorite with an asterisk come April at Augusta. But if he ever finds a more consistent stroke, watch out. He could signal the start of another Asian invasion.
Dan O’Neill covers golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @WWDOD