Japanese golf star Hideki Matsuyama will have one eye set on a second victory in three years at the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP and the other on the progress of 13 of his fellow countrymen whose lives can instantly change with a home win this week.
Matsuyama, an eight-time PGA TOUR winner, will make his first appearance in two months since the BMW Championship in August, saying he ‘feels good’ returning to Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club in Chiba, Japan where he won by five strokes in 2021 and finished runner-up to Tiger Woods in the inaugural edition in 2019.
“Yeah, a lot of good memories. It’s always great to play in the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP,” said Matsuyama. “It has been two months since I played in a tournament. The first month I really took it easy, it’s been a long time since I took that much time off, but the last month I’ve been working hard getting my game back in shape and I feel good about heading into this week.”
With the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP jointly sanctioned with the Japan Golf Tour, Matsuyama, who won the Masters in 2021, will also be rooting for his compatriots to shine against the likes of defending champion Keegan Bradley, World No. 6 Xander Schauffele, Rickie Fowler, Collin Morikawa and Australian duo Adam Scott and Min Woo Lee.
Aside from Matsuyama’s top finishes, the next best Japanese results over the past four years have been by Takumi Kanaya (T7/2021), Ryo Hisatsune (T12/2022) and Keita Kitajima (T12/2022). All three rising stars are in this week’s 78-man field, including Aguri Iwasaki, who claimed his career first victory at the Japan Open on the domestic circuit on Sunday, and Ryo Ishikawa, an 18-time Japan Golf Tour winner and runner-up to Iwasaki last weekend.
“I follow all of the Japanese players, especially Iwasaki,” said Matsuyama. “I know he’s had a tough year in Europe and I’ve been following him. Then on Sunday, to be able to watch him win the Japan Open was quite a thrill. I think I was more nervous watching him than he was.”
The 25-year-ol Kanaya, the current No. 1 on the Japan Golf Tour, said: “I’m here to play with a chance to win. The other JGTO players also have that goal in mind, so it’s all about performing well and getting to that goal. It’s an amazing experience getting to play with players on the PGA TOUR, and it’s also a huge opportunity. Personally, I think this event has helped me grow each year. I just want to play my game and hope the other JGTO players can as well and show the world what we can do.”
Like Kanaya, Nakajima has also been inspired by the success achieved by Matsuyama and dreams of joining him on the PGA TOUR. In last year’s ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP, the 23-year-old was in the title mix through 36 holes before settling for a joint 12th finish.
“Japanese players have a chance to win here. As it is hosted in Japan, overseas players are not familiar with Japanese grass. We have an advantage. If I get a card on the PGA TOUR, I will go onto the TOUR as fast as possible if that is the case. Last year, I was a bit nervous about this challenging golf course. I have more confidence to compete in the tournament this year,” said Kitayama, who is three-time Japan Golf Tour winner.
Ishikawa, 32, spent several seasons competing on the PGA TOUR where he has two career runner-up finishes and nine other top-10s before injuries slowed down his career. He sees the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP as another opportunity for Japanese players to fast-track their careers.
“We’re going against the world’s best, so it won’t be easy,” said Ishikawa. “ We’re getting more opportunities and it’s great. I believe there will be some Japanese players who will shine this week. There is a chance for a Japanese player to win, or at least be in contention. It’s not easy, but the motivation is really high.”
After last year’s commendable outing, Ryo Hisatsune, who is 21, will have added spring in his step as he claimed the Cazoo Open de France last month to become only the third Japanese player to win on the DP World Tour after Isao Aoki and Matsuyama. He is presently in position to earn a PGA TOUR card for 2024 through the DP World Tour Top 10.
“I want to put in the work to ultimately win on the PGA TOUR. I want to follow in the footsteps of Matsuyama and become a player who can win the major championships,” said Hisatsune.