Hideki Matsuyama looks to make history at PGA Championship as first Japanese major winner

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In tournament golf, pressure is always around you. For some, there is the pressure of outside and outsized expectations. For others, there is the pressure of avoiding being on the outside looking in. For everyone, there is the most obvious pressure, the pressure to win.

But for Hideki Matsuyama the pressure is different and more outlandish. It is the pressure of carrying your nation’s hopes onto every tee box and green. So it was again yesterday for the 25-year-old who is trying to become the first player from Japan to win a major championship.

At every major for the past several years, his name would come up in almost every press conference as someone from the ever-expanding coterie of Japanese media following him like a flock of goslings behind the mother goose would ask player after player if they thought Matsuyama would soon win his first major.

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The consensus was, and remains, that he is on the cusp, and that is where he finds himself again this afternoon when he tees off in the final round of the 99th PGA Championship only 1 shot behind the leader, Kevin Kisner, with whom he played yesterday along with Jason Day.

For Matsuyama, close is becoming a familiar place. He has finished inside the top 15 in all of the first three majors this year, including a tie for second at the U.S. Open. That is his best finish in a major and ties him with Isao Aoki for Japan’s best. Aoki finished second to Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 U.S. Open. Matsuyama also is tied with Tommy Nakajima, whose six top-10 finishes in majors was the best by a Japanese player until Matsuyama did it in barely four years on tour.

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Unless disaster strikes, Matsuyama seems sure to pass Nakajima today, but can he surpass Aoki and become the first from his country to win a major championship? If work will get it done, Matsuyama finally might get that weight off his shoulders because he is widely considered to be the hardest-working golfer on tour.

Once considered a poor putter, Matsuyama spends more time on the putting green than anyone and is almost always the last to leave the range during tournament weeks. It is often a battle between him and Vijay Singh for who will hit the least visible shot from the range as darkness closes in.

Ceaseless practice certainly has paid off this year. He’s already won three times, has three seconds, shot a 61 last Sunday to win the WGC Bridgestone, is currently ranked No. 3 in the world and has piled up $4,193,954 in earnings this season. Yet one question always lingers:

“When will Hideki win a major?”

It hovers over him everywhere he goes, whether he’s tearing up the course or bogeying the 12th and 13th, as he did yesterday at Quail Hollow to slide out of a tie for the lead and temporarily fall 2 shots back. One could see the shoulders of several members of the Japanese press corps sag noticeably. One can only imagine what Matsuyami’s must have felt like.

Coping with pressure is the tour professional’s lot in life. It is a requirement of the job, and those who cannot stand up to it will not last. But there is pressure to win and pressure to keep one’s tour card that are normal and to be expected. What, then, can the weight be of carrying a country’s hopes around like an overstuffed golf bag?

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Only Matusyama knows because he is the only one that is feeling it, but his 2-over round of 73 yesterday that pushed him out of the lead he’d shared when the day began might have been a result of knowing the question is always out there.

“When will Hideki win a major?”

“I don’t know if the other players should be nervous or not, but this is my first experience leading a major, or tied for the lead after 36 holes,” he said after completing the second round that had been suspended because of darkness and rain. “Being a new experience, maybe I’ll be a little nervous, but on the other hand, I’m looking forward to the weekend and seeing how I do.”

For most of the third round, he was steady and unwavering. Through 11 holes, he was at even for the day and a solid 8-under as he, Kisner and journeyman Chris Stroud dueled for the top. Then, suddenly, came back-to-back bogeys at 12 and 13, several wayward swings suddenly creeping first into his mind and then down through his club to the ball itself.

Was it just a bad swing?

A miscalculation of distance or wind?

Or had he felt the silent tap on his shoulder and heard the whisper, “When will Hideki win a major?”

“It’s hard for me to speak to the pressure he could feel winning the first major for his country,” Jordan Spieth said yesterday. “I’ve got no background on handling a question like that, to be honest. I’m sure he feels a little added (pressure) because of that.

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“With the way he’s been playing, his misses seem to be birdies right now. When you have it going, you have it going. He’s going to be tough to beat.”

He might be, but unlike the rest of the field, Hideki Matsuyama is not merely trying to beat his competitors and a tough golf course. He’s trying to beat a nation’s golfing history. Today, when he will try again to become the first from his country to win a major golf championship, in the back of his mind, he will hear that question all afternoon long.

“When will Hideki win a major?”

Only Hideki Matsuyama has the answer, but the less often he asks himself that question, the greater chance it will be today.

This article is written by Ron Borges from Boston Herald and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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