DUBLIN, Ohio — He’s here.
The next great player, that is.
In our modern age, there is always a rush to judgment. We no sooner had the first Tiger Woods than we began a relentless attempt to identify players who “could be the next Tiger Woods.”
Now that Tiger Woods may no longer be Tiger Woods anymore, pending recovery from back surgery, the chase is on again to find a new superstar or two for golf.
Jordan Spieth has one win and a near-miss in the Masters. He’s what they’d call a five-tool player in baseball. He’s got the attitude and the smarts to go with it, too. He’s only 20 and, presumably, will only get better. He seems legit since he played his way onto the PGA Tour without any status. That’s a feat in itself. Still, it seems too early to hang any heavy monikers around the kid’s neck.
Hideki Matsuyama may as well be the Japanese version of Spieth. He’s got a solid game, a pretty good pedigree back home — he had a batch of wins and led the Japan Golf Tour in money last year — and he seems to have a good attitude and the smarts to go with it.
Memorial Tournament host Jack Nicklaus predicted great things for him after Matsuyama made a gutsy birdie on the 72nd hole to force a playoff and then made another gutsy par putt to beat Kevin Na on the first hole of a playoff. Matsuyama did that, by the way, without the benefit of a driver. He broke his, sort of accidentally, when he tapped it on the ground in disgust after his drive on the final hole and the head snapped off. “I was very shocked,” Matsuyama said with a smile, via an interpreter.
“I think you’ve just seen the start of what’s going to be truly one of the world’s great players,” Nicklaus said.
When Matsuyama was asked about who taught him to play, he answered that his father was his only swing coach when he grew up and now he coaches himself.
Asked what he does when something goes wrong, Matsuyama said, “Nobody fixes it but me.”
When Nicklaus heard that answer, he got excited. “That right there tells you why he’s going to be a good player,” said Nicklaus, who traditionally sits in on the winner’s press conference.
It’s not as if Matsuyama is new to the scene. He played here at Muirfield Village in last year’s Presidents Cup, and he’s been impressing observers for a while. Ryo Ishikawa, once expected to be Japan’s next star player, has already been eclipsed by Matsuyama, who became only the fourth Japanese player to win an official PGA Tour event. Perhaps he was just being a good host, but Nicklaus seemed very convincing that he’s a big believer in Matsuyama’s considerable talents.
“His game has been pretty good for a long time,” Nicklaus said. “I watched him before the Presidents Cup. I loved his tempo. His size is larger than most of your Japanese players. Jumbo Ozaki was a big guy. Isao Aoki was tall but not as strong. Ishikawa is a little smaller. Hideki has the ability to play courses well within himself without having to push for distance and strength. His tempo is good and his composure — he’s very calm. When he knocked the ball in the water at 16 today, you saw him just bear down and try to play a better shot. That showed a lot about him.”
The natural tendency after a player’s first win is to predict that the floodgates will open and that he’ll become a significant winner. It’s hard not to because anyone who wins has played his best golf and therefore looks unbeatable.
The truth is that most of our predictions are wrong and a lot of players fall into the one-and-done category, even if they stay on Tour and win millions over the course of years. So what makes Matsuyama different?
That same thing makes Jordan Spieth different. It’s not karma, it’s not charisma, it’s something else. The way they carry themselves, it’s as if they know they’re going to win. They expect to win.
Matsuyama’s victory at the Muirfield Village Golf Club was the last in a series of dominoes to fall. A lot of contending players backed up, notably Bubba Watson and Adam Scott. That opened a door.
Even Matsuyama backed up. He dunked a tee shot in the water on the par-3 16th, Jack’s version of Augusta National’s par-3 16th. Except Jack changed the angles so that on his hole, you’ve got to hit the tee shot across the water to reach a small, angled green. Sorry, Jack, but Augusta National did it better.
Maruyama’s shot didn’t come up short so much as the wind pushed it left, and it splashed just two feet left of dry land. It was a quick double bogey that dropped him back into a tie for the lead with Na, an early finisher who shot 64 and had been done for quite some time.
Matsuyama had to par in to get into a playoff. Except he missed the green at 17, had a dicey lie and fluffed his chip shot. Bogey. Now he had to birdie the tough 18th hole to extend the tournament.
At this point, a lot of people were ready to hand the trophy to Na. Especially when Matsuyama reacted to his tee shot at the 18th, which he was sure was going too far right. His ball hit in the thick right rough, kicked hard left and trickled down into the fairway, a huge break.
He admitted later that it was only when he saw his ball in the fairway that he thought he still had a chance. Why not? He’d birdied the 18th in each of the first three rounds. Then he stuffed another iron shot in close and sank the big five-footer for birdie and new life in the playoff.
In a nutshell, the guy wins the tournament, loses the tournament and then wins it back. That’s the stuff of champions.
One more reason to like Matsuyama is his attitude. Like Spieth, he clearly does not like to lose. So when that tee ball at the 72nd hole was going right, he swung his driver head into the ground. He didn’t slam it in anger, but he did drop it down with a little force. As he used it like a cane to walk off the tee, the head snapped off.
Since Matsuyama didn’t have a backup driver in his locker, he had to play without one in the playoff. “I did okay with the 3-wood,” he said with a grin.
The kid, if I may call him that, overcame more than the usual amount of adversity to win the Memorial. That is impressive.
There is no need to pile on the superlatives here or overhype his future. Let’s just let him play and sit back and watch. It will be a surprise if he’s not a major player, however. He was low amateur in the 2011 Masters and last year, he was 10th at the U.S. Open, sixth at the British Open and 19th at the PGA Championship.
He has long since passed into Ron Burgundy territory — yeah, he’s kind of a big deal.
“I think we have a great winner,” Nicklaus said Sunday night. “This young man is going to win a lot of golf tournaments. First one in the United States. Gotta start somewhere.”
Matsuyama scored his first PGA Tour win as a 22-year-old. The same age Nicklaus got his first PGA Tour win.
Coincidence? Check back in 10 years.