In-form Japanese star can become winningest Asian golfer with a win at PLAYERS Championship
By Chuah Choo Chiang
Asian golf’s trailblazer K.J. Choi believes Hideki Matsuyama will go on to set a new benchmark for the game in the Far East after marveling at how the Japanese superstar has equaled his long-standing record of eight PGA TOUR victories.
The 30-year-old Matsuyama joined Choi atop the list of Asian-born golfers with the most wins under their belts following a stunning victory at the Sony Open in Hawaii. It was Matsuyama’s third win within the space of nine months which included an historic Masters Tournament triumph last April and a popular home win at the Zozo Championship in October.
With the TOUR staging its flagship tournament, THE PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass from March 10-13, it may well be written in the stars for Matsuyama to go on and become the first Asian to reach an unprecedented nine career titles at the same iconic event where Choi claimed his eighth and final tournament win some 11 years ago.
As the richest tournament in the world following an escalation of its prize fund to a princely US$20 million, THE PLAYERS boasts the strongest ever field in the game annually and is held at a venue which Matsuyama has a strong track record to back up his dream of hoisting what is a highly sought-after trophy.
In seven appearances since 2014, Matsuyama has posted two top-10s and three top-25s at THE PLAYERS, and fired a course-record equaling 63 in the first round in 2020 before the tournament was cancelled due to the onset of Covid-19.
The Pete Dye-designed Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass demands all the necessary skills, patience and guile to negotiate and it could well play nicely into Matsuyama’s hands this month. “Let’s see, what do I like about this course? Oh, that’s a tough question,” Matsuyama said several years ago. “I guess watching everybody else struggle too is comforting. I don’t know why I play well in difficult conditions and the Majors.”
In many ways, Matsuyama has many of Choi’s traits. They typically excel at golf courses that reward precision and accuracy, both work at their games from dawn till dusks and ultimately carry Asia’s hopes of delivering success and inspiration to a region which has massive following in the game.
Choi, who won THE PLAYERS at age 41, recalls meeting Matsuyama for the very first time a decade ago. He was impressed by the younger man’s attitude towards the game and passion in wanting to become the best. He said Matsuyama was “unique” and possessed “special golf skills”.
“When I first met Hideki, he was about 19 or 20 years old. I thought he had the passion from a young age. That’s the thing I remember about him. He is very calm and takes control of himself. He has lots of passion in golf and I said to myself he has a future in the game. He had a special golfing skill and was different from others. He had techniques which was unique. The flexibility and speed was great and I think he will improve more from now onwards,” said 51-year-old Choi, who now plays primarily on PGA TOUR Champions (over-50 circuit) but still makes the occasional appearances on the PGA TOUR.
The Korean legend believes Matsuyama will free-wheel his way into double digits for career wins on the PGA TOUR and said the key was for the ultra-talented Japanese to stay injury-free as he begins life in his 30s.
“It is important he doesn’t get injured. That’s the top thing. If he keeps his condition, he definitely can win more events. I always think athletes are here to break records and to make new records. And we always need to be at our best in order to do that. I’m happy Hideki achieved what I have fulfilled,” said Choi, who was the first Korean to earn a PGA TOUR card in 1999.
When Choi won THE PLAYERS in 2011, the tournament’s prize fund stood at US$9.5 million, which was then already a record. The astounding US$20 million pot now dwarfs the purses of the four majors (US$12.5 million for the U.S. Open, US$12 million for the PGA Championship and US$11.5 million for the Masters and Open Championship were offered in 2021).
But ultimate, winning THE PLAYERS is not all about the money.
“Amongst my eight PGA TOUR wins, I cried the most after winning this one,” said Choi. “I was genuinely thrilled with my accomplishment as I think every player desires to win THE PLAYERS as it is the strongest tournament in the world and also the TOUR’s flagship event. Becoming the first Asian and Korean player to win made it extra special and I was really proud.”
Choi anticipates Matsuyama’s success, along with the rapid rise of countrymen such as Sungjae Im, Si Woo Kim and K.H. Lee, will inspire the next generation of young stars from Asia. “Hideki’s record will impact the younger generation and other Asian players will want to become like him. I think Hideki’s win will affect his career a lot. I remember me saying in an interview there will be a No. 1 Asian player soon. We have Asians who have won majors, and if Hideki keeps his condition without having to go through injuries, he will get many more wins.”
Note: Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, marketing & communications – APAC, for the PGA TOUR and is based in Kuala Lumpur.