Matsuyama defends HSBC Champions title

Hideki Matsuyama was the best player on the PGA Tour for much of last season, winning three times and leading the FedExCup standings heading into the playoffs before fading after playing close to 30 events around the world.

Matsuyama is back where he started his 2016-17 run, defending his title this week in World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions at Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai.

“Sheshan has some very special memories for me,” said Matsuyama, who became the first player from Japan to capture a World Golf Championships event and added the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational to his dossier in August.

“It was a great honor to become the first Japanese winner of a World Golf Championships and to do it against such a world-class field was very special. I believe the confidence I gained with such a big victory there has really helped me with my performances.”

Matsuyama, who is No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking, started the new season with a tie for fifth in the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, has a much bigger career goal, which seems to be well within his reach.

The 25-year-old wants to become the first player from Japan to win a major championship.

Isao Aoki recorded the best result by a Japanese golfer in one of the Grand Slam events when he finished second in the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol. Aoki entered the final round tied with Jack Nicklaus and finished two strokes behind the Golden Bear after closing with a 70.

Matsuyama equaled that feat when he closed with a 66 to tie for second, four shots behind Brooks Koepka, last June in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills.

“All I can do is my best,” said Matsuyama, who has finished in the top 10 on seven times in the majors, including solo fifth in the 2014 Masters, a tie for fifth in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow and a tie for sixth in the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield. “I know a lot of us have tried from Japan to win majors. Hopefully someday it will happen.

” … I did play well at the PGA. I had a chance. Unfortunately, Justin Thomas played better than I did, and it was a bitter defeat for me. I was really hoping and praying and doing my best to win the PGA. But hopefully I can take that experience, what I learned there, to play better in majors to come, and hopefully someday, that first major will show itself.”

Matsuyama was tied for the PGA Championship lead with Kevin Kisner after shooting 64 in round two at Quail Hollow in August, and he was tied for second, one shot behind Kisner, entering the final round.

However, after opening with 70-64, he played the weekend in 73-72 and finished three strokes behind Thomas.

When Matsuyama appeared to gain a measure of revenge by defeating Thomas, 3 and 1, in Sunday singles at the Presidents Cup early this month, he told reporters that it wasn’t about revenge.

“I’m not sure about that, but I look forward to battling Justin at more majors in the future,” who collected eight birdies and an eagle in the first 12 holes against Thomas, the PGA Tour Player of the Year and FedExCup champion.

“Both of us were out there fighting. Neither one of us wanted to lose, and I’m happy I came out on top and got a point for our team. It’s been a long time since I shot a good round like today, and hopefully this will be a steppingstone to better rounds in the near future.”

Matsuyama, who claimed three other victories around the world in the last year and has 14 titles in his pro career, still is not comfortable with interviews in English and always speaks through an interpreter.

So reporters often seek out his peers.

“It just looks like that guy right now has his priority set on playing good golf,” said Jason Day of Australia, who was Matsuyama’s teammate on the International team in the Presidents Cup.

“He’s (always) on the range and he’s the last guy to leave. He’s always putting. He’s always doing something. He’s working hard. And I feel like he’s the hardest worker out here right now, just because he wants to win.”

Added Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland: “Once he gets going, he just keeps the hammer down and keeps it going. It’s very impressive. He’s played very impressively over the past 18 months with a lot of wins and a lot of good finishes. … That’s sort of the caliber of player he is.”

Matsuyama will make another bid this week to win the tournament known as “Asia’s Major.”

One of these days, he figures to win one of the real majors.

–Story courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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