x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Education is foremost on the mind of Asian prodigy and Japan's Matsuyama

With two wins on the Japanese tour this year and an unexpected 10th-place finish at last month's US Open, Hideki Matsuyama is carrying the hopes of Japan.

Hideki Matsuyama finished tied tenth at the US Open at the age of 21 only. Alastair Grant / AP Photo
Hideki Matsuyama finished tied tenth at the US Open at the age of 21 only. Alastair Grant / AP Photo

GULLANE, Scotland // Move over Ryo Ishikawa, Asian golf finally has a new star.

With two wins on the Japanese tour this year and an unexpected 10th-place finish at last month's US Open, Hideki Matsuyama is carrying the hopes of Japan and the rest of Asia heading into his first British Open.

Not an easy task for a player who turned professional in April. But Matsuyama, 21, is taking it in stride. "As far as taking over from Ishikawa, I haven't even thought of that," said Asia's leading golfer, at world No 44.

"All I'm doing is trying to play the best golf that I can, gain the experience that I need."

Fearless, good-looking and always sharply dressed, Ishikawa blew onto the scene in 2007 after winning his first pro tournament at age 15 and, two years later, he became the youngest player to enter the world top 50.

The major that many predicted would quickly arrive never came, though. His presence on the US PGA Tour has given him more exposure, but he is dropping steadily down the rankings, from No 64 last summer to a current No 153. That puts him only 13th in Asia.

There are eight Japanese players at Muirfield this week Ishikawa is not among them.

It is his compatriot Matsuyama, last year's top British Open amateur, who is starting to hog the limelight - even more so this week, since he has been grouped with Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy for his first two rounds.

Those who have followed his progress find few weaknesses in Matsuyama's game. Charming and polite - just like Ishikawa - he has a bigger frame and a nice smile. But out on the course, he is ruthless.

He announced himself to the world by making the cut at his first two Masters, in 2011 and 2012, but his game has kicked on since turning pro, with seven top-10 finishes in eight Japanese Tour events, including two wins and two seconds, and that great showing at Merion on the toughest stage at all.

"The finish at the US Open did a lot for my confidence," Matsuyama said. "Knowing that I can play on the world stage."

Playing at Muirfield will further his education, especially considering that his partners tomorrow and Friday have won six majors between them.

Matsuyama has turned to compatriot Shigeki Maruyama, who missed a play-off by one stroke at Muirfield in 2002, for advice about how to tackle the challenges of links golf this week. Maruyama is the most successful Japanese player in US tour history,.

Matsuyama has had to reinvent his game, emphasising low shots off the tee and fairways and run-up approaches to the greens.

"I've never played on a course with harder fairways or harder greens," he said. "So it's been an adventure and a great learning experience for me."