Reporters covering golf

How golf is covered and consumed in Japan is a window into the country’s insatiable appetite for the game

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Late in the third round of the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, Hideki Matsuyama was out of contention. He was coming off three bogeys in four holes and now faced the par-3 16th, the third-most difficult hole on the course. The pin was tucked in the back left over a bunker and the wind was howling right to left. Most players in that situation would, and did, hit a draw, starting it right of the green and letting the wind deliver it safely to the center. Matsuyama hit a fade.

Nobuaki Sugisawa, or Sugi-san, as he’s known to most Japanese golf fans, was standing a few feet away and reporting live for the Japanese Golf Network, one of the two Japanese networks with rights to broadcast Tour events. Sugi-san, who speaks with an infectious dosage of lighthearted, boyish glee and calculated care, told the viewers why Matsuyama elected for the fade.

“He is out of contention — he is already thinking about the next tournament,” he said. “He chose a more difficult shot to sharpen his golf swing and his mind.”

After the round, when Sugi-san asked Matsuyama about the shot on 16, Matsuyama confirmed Sugi-san’s analysis. Moments like this are why Japanese golf fans revere and respect Matsuyama and his relentless drive to improve even after reaching golf’s highest peak at Augusta National in April. But moments like this are also why Japanese golf fans revere and respect Sugi-san, a vital and noble conduit of information from Matsuyama’s endeavors abroad back home to Japan.

Japan will be the center of the golf universe this week and next (even without fans allowed on site), when some of the world’s best head to Kasumigaseki Country Club, site of the Olympic golf competition (July 29-Aug. 7). Four Japanese players will represent their home countries — Matsuyama and Rikuya Hoshino for the men and Nasa Hataoka and Mone Inami for the women. But to understand how important hosting Olympic golf is to the country, it’s helpful to take a closer look at the Japanese golf media, which seeks to satiate the tastes and interests of a golf-crazed nation. The passion for the game of golf exhibited by the Japanese fans is reflected in the equally ardent media coverage of it.

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Since 2008, Golf Network has contracted Sugi-san to travel all across the globe to work as their on-course analyst. He covers up to 12 tournaments a year (in non-Covid times), including all four majors, a schedule primarily dictated by Matsuyama. At each event, Sugi-san is a part of the 20-30 Japanese journalist cadre that follows Matsuyama from the moment he steps on the driving range to when he gets into his tournament-issued car later that day. Come evening, Sugi-san’s job continues, delivering post-round commentary for the morning news cycle well into the night. He is the hard-working bearer of news and insight, a reporter with boots on the ground rubbing shoulders with the stars of the PGA Tour, drawing from a bevy of knowledge from a life in golf. Before he was an on-air reporter he was a caddie for 25 years, eight of which with Shigeki Maruyama, the pair racking up three wins on the PGA Tour. He’s also logged some freelance caddie work for Matsuyama himself.

When you’re over there, you’ve enjoyed the people and the culture so much that it’s hard to ever root against them.

Sugi-san is the perfect testament to just how momentous Matsuyama’s win at Augusta was to the people of Japan, who have such intense admiration for Matsuyama’s noble endeavors that such trickles down to the people who speak about them. Sugi-san often gets noticed in public, when he’s walking down the street in Tokyo, or at U.S. events. Sometimes fans will ask him to deliver messages to Hideki, to wish him good luck or to thank him. Other times they’ll do the same to Sugi-san directly, thanking him for working so hard and being the valuable Paul Revere of Matsuyama’s exploits that he is.

While baseball is the country’s most-watched professional sport, golf is the one most-played recreationally. It is endlessly popular; despite the public courses being outside of Tokyo city limits and often over an hour to get to by train or subway, tee sheets are often fully booked on weekends. And while there are no courses within the Tokyo city limits, monolithic, multi-tiered driving ranges are all over Japan’s major cities, catering to the hard-working “salarymen” who don’t have time for the long walk. So are the golf bars, lounges with golf-course simulators that also serve drinks.

The pandemic, combined with Matsuyama’s win in April, have taken what was already an immensely popular game to even greater heights. The most popular driving range in Tokyo, Lotte Kasai, has had a consistent two-plus-hour wait at all times. Tee times, too, have been nearly impossible to get at the major public courses on the outskirts of Tokyo.

So it’s no surprise that a country so golf-obsessed would have a robust media industry to cater to it. Walk into any convenience store in Japan and you will find rows of weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly golf magazines. There are as many online outlets, too, their foreign correspondents posting updates throughout each week’s event; time-marked, of course, at intervals throughout the night in Japanese Standard Time.

While the bulk of the material in these publications are lessons, Matsuyama’s win at Augusta was covered voraciously, each and every outlet sporting a rotating assortment of pictures from Matsuyama’s triumph on their respective covers. Many released special collector’s editions, full magazines with a varied array of content from Matsuyama’s win. Sankei Sports’ “Eternal Preservation Issue” contained a graphic of all 278 shots it took Matsuyama to make his way around 72 holes. Sports Graphic Number contained special messages to Matsuyama from Japanese legends like Isao Aoki and Ai Miyasato. Golf Digest Weekly’s special edition kept it simple: “Thank You Hideki!”

Dustin Johnson slips the green jacket on Hideki Matsuyama.

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There’s no questioning the massive pressure the media puts on Matsuyama, though. At the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, after coming into the final round one back of Justin Thomas, Matsuyama missed a few key short putts down the stretch to sink his chances and miss another major chance. He was in tears when speaking to the media. That’s not to put the blame for his meltdown on the Japanese press. They’re merely ardent. Ubiquitous. A tad prying but only because they care so much, almost like an overbearing mother, oh so hoping their precious son will succeed that they drive him mad. So much so that they caused Matsuyama to breathe a sigh of relief when Covid travel restrictions prevented most of them from covering his breakthrough Masters moment in person.

The tears were flowing in that moment too, naturally. Japanese legend and color commentator Tommy Nakajima was bawling tears of joy and gratitude when Matsuyama tapped in for bogey on 18 at Augusta, dabbing his eyes with a tissue as he fought through the tears to put into words just what the win meant. This from a player who finished in the top 10 in all four majors — and famously recorded a 13 on the 13th at Augusta — yet was ultimately one of the many who couldn’t break through.

Respect runs deep in Japan; it sometimes manifests itself in odd ways.

Just ask Andrew McDaniel, the Alabama-born head greenskeeper at Keya Golf Club in the Fukuoka Prefecture. McDaniel boasts the impressive title of being the only foreign greenskeeper in all of Japan. Each year, he and Keya host a stop on the Japan Golf Tour, the KBC Augusta Championship. He was anxious the first year he had to get the course ready for the event, his first time doing so and thus not knowing what to expect, but his qualms were soon squashed by quite an absurd degree. Keya and its zoysia-grass greens received rave reviews, with some pros opining they were the best they’ve ever putt on. As a result of this fanfare, at the following year’s event, Golf Network filmed a four-minute segment on McDaniel and his crew and how they care for their immaculate turf, which they aired during the tournament.

This initial bit of publicity was McDaniel’s star turn. For the next few years, he was interviewed and featured countless times by many different golf publications. Pros at the KBC Augusta would compliment him in person.

“It’s really so bizarre,” he said.

All of this exposure came to a head in 2018, when writers from Par Golf, a popular Japanese magazine, mythologized him in a manga, the immensely popular Japanese comics aimed at both kids and adults. Golf-themed mangas are a fixture in Japanese golf magazines, often released as hard-bound books after initial publication. Many have been written in the wake of Matsuyama’s Masters win, mythologizing him in a cartoon.

The manga titled “Impact” follows two Japanese players as they compete in the “KBS Augusta,” changed, for some reason, from the KBC Augusta (McDaniel’s name, too, was changed, to “Daniel-son”). In the story, the players are conveniently staying at the same hotel as McDaniel, and they along with their caddies jockey for tips from the greenskeeper on how to read Keya’s zoysia-greens.

He thought the manga would last for a few weeks but was surprised to see it elapse months, then over a year. Often no golf is played at all, and some off-course storylines focused on McDaniel take up entire issues.

“I got put in there maybe two times a month,” he says. “It got to a point where I stopped reading them, it just got so long.”

He’s still unsure how all of this happened — the broadcast segment, the magazine spreads, the immortalization in the manga — to a humble golf superintendent.

“Yeah, really, I don’t know why,” he says, after pausing to think for a second. “It’s still hard to put it into words. Why me? Other superintendents are doing the exact thing I’m doing. I’ve been on TV!”

McDaniel is a master of his craft and the overseer of the playing grounds, setting the stage in which the players compete, and he does so with immense care and expertise. Japanese fans respect him for it, and respect in Japan is infectious.

Scott Vincent learned that firsthand. The Zimbabwean and Japan Golf Tour fixture, who will be representing Zimbabwe in the Tokyo Olympics, said younger players go out of their way to greet veterans on the Japan Golf Tour, something he rarely saw on other tours.

“When you’re over there, you’ve enjoyed the people and the culture so much that it’s hard to ever root against them,” he says.

Hideki Matsuyama speaks to the media ahead of the 2014 Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

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All of the coverage and mass hysteria ostensibly funnels down to the next generation, to youngsters like Masa Imaya, a 12-year old junior golfer from Tokyo who has competed at the Junior PGA World Championship at Torrey Pines and wakes up at dawn each weekend to watch PGA Tour coverage. Imaya was buying golf magazines at newsstands as early as age 5, has shelves lined with hard copies of golf mangas and has dreams of winning a major one day himself.

He’s even made a pilgrimage to the driving range in Matsuyama’s childhood hometown that is owned by Hideki’s father and hangs a signed photo of Matsuyama he received from the trip on his wall. Like millions of others in Japan, Matsuyama’s win has motivated Imaya to make it to that stage.

While a small part of him was disheartened to realize he could no longer be the first Japanese player to win a major, his longtime swing coach, Canadian Todd Baker, who helped him translate, joked that he could still be the first to win the other three majors. Imaya agreed that would be special, too.

But in many ways, Matsuyama’s demure public persona works in his favor. Groups are tantamount to individuals in Japan; anyone who disrupts group harmony, be it that of a family, a company like Mitsubishi, or the entire country, is not wanted. Matsuyama fits perfectly into this societal mold, despite the individuality baked into the game of golf. A larger personality all about surface-level peacocking — “brand building,” if you will — wouldn’t have left any room for such a collective response, in which all of Japan laid claim to a little piece of his Masters win.

The people of Japan appreciate his hard work, too, further rendering his reserved aura moot. The diligence he shows in honing his craft, the little ways in which he seeks to improve even when he’s not in contention, are always apparent even if not always explicitly displayed or boasted about.

Sugi-san recounted that on an international flight in which he sat next to Matsuyama, Hideki was asleep, resting his right elbow on the seat tray table. When his elbow slipped off the tray table, jolting him awake, Hideki instinctually finished a golf swing like a middle-aged Dad might do while manning the grill.

“Golf is 24 hours!” Sugi-san joked again in English, with a giggle.

Nobuaki Sugisawa (left) caddying for Yusaku Miyazato at the 2014 Open Championship.

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Matsuyama has become a transcendent star, bigger than the game of golf, and perhaps even bigger than himself. Such was apparent when he graced the cover of the Yomiuri Shimbun, the most popular and widely circulated daily newspaper in the country. Tsukasa Sano, a sportswriter for the paper, was charged with writing the front-page story. Sano is based in Los Angeles and covers a wide range of Japanese athletes who have found homes in the west such as Angels pitching and hitting sensation Shohei Ohtani, Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura, as well as pro golfers like Matsuyama and female stars Yuka Sasso and Hinako Shibuno. And while his writing is normally reserved for the sports section, there are those few transcendent moments where sports just mean too much than to be banished to section B.

In April, Sano covered two of those moments. The first was when Shohei Ohtani became the first player since Babe Ruth to start a game at pitcher while leading the league in home runs. The second, of course, was Matsuyama’s win at the Masters, which he attended in person, one of the few Japanese journalists with the privilege due to Covid restrictions (much to the delight of Matsuyama himself, notably). He was deliberate in his approach when delivering the news from the frontlines in Augusta to the masses, recognizing that “because the Shimbun is a national newspaper with a wide range of readers, I thought it was necessary to convey Matsuyama’s achievements in a careful, easy-to-understand manner.”

His cover story was a sweeping token to the accomplishment. It chronicled Matsuyama’s “10-year Masters journey,” from playing in the event as an amateur in 2009 after gaining an exemption from winning the Asian Amateur to winning the thing. It also highlighted the many Japanese golfers before him who came close but failed to climb the “wall,” as he called it, that prevented them from winning a major.

Sano noted that the significance of the achievement was augmented during times of Covid. “There are many dark topics due to the new coronavirus,” he explained, “and I think that the bright ones have touched the hearts of many people.” And for the Yomiuri Shimbun, the paper of record for Japan which recorded each ebb and flow over the course of the virus, achievements like Matsuyama’s, like Ohtani’s, deserve to reach the masses. Hideki’s win was a moment of national triumph, meant for ardent, casual, and non-golf fans, alike.

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And a gold medal at the Olympics for any of the Japanese golfers, Matsuyama, Hoshino, Hataoka and Inami, would be another national triumph, it going directly toward Team Japan’s medal count. Matsuyama will be, and already has been, covered heavily going into the Games, his testing positive for Covid-19 and having to withdraw from the Rocket Mortgage Classic earlier this month, which also led to his WD at the Open Championship. The Games will be his first competitive rounds in four weeks.

Tiger Woods won the Zozo Championship in Japan in October 2019 for his 82nd career PGA Tour victory.

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But praise from the Japanese golfing public is not reserved for just the Japanese players. For as much as Matsuyama’s win at the Masters meant, the Japanese appreciate the game’s international stars, too. Stars like Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods have made inroads into the country, making many trips there to both play in tournaments and host clinics and other events to promote their brands. This embracing of the international stars of the game makes sense given the fact that since 2014, Matsuyama has primarily competed on the PGA Tour. Being abroad for so many months a year has reduced his visibility in the country and eliminated a potential monopoly on stardom there.

Sugi-san fondly remembers the 2019 Zozo Championship, which was held at Narashino Country Club in Tokyo and full of stars like Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Justin Thomas, Sergio Garcia and, of course, Woods. Sugi-san, who was covering the event, says the cheers were the loudest for Woods, his appearance having been an exciting treat to the Japanese fans. But into the weekend, the tournament turned into a two-man battle between Matsuyama and Woods. Sugi-san noticed the support gradually shifting toward Matsuyama once the shine of Woods’ presence wore off and it was clear Hideki had a chance to best Woods on home turf. Woods, ultimately, got the better of Matsuyama by three shots.

Mastery in golf will be celebrated in Japan, whether it’s of playing the game itself, breaking it down for the masses or preparing the course. No matter, too, if this is done by a Japanese person or a foreign one.

This week and next, Japan opens its doors to some of the world’s best golfers at the Tokyo Olympics. Whoever wins gold will live on in perpetuity in the hearts and minds of the Japanese fans, right next to Matsuyama, if not one notch below, so long as they win with the grace to match their greatness.

Ethan Bunzel is a writer based in New York City. After graduating from Emory University, he lived in Shanghai, China, where he was an English teacher.

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