Nearly four years ago, on a steamy August morning in Charlotte, N.C., I woke up with a mission: learn something new about Hideki Matsuyama. The Japanese superstar was the world No. 3 at that time and coming off a dazzling, second-round 64 at the PGA Championship, at Quail Hollow, that had vaulted him into a tie for the lead.
American golf fans knew little of Matsuyama’s story, other than he was a supreme ball-striking talent — with an unusual pause in his swing — who could work absolute magic between the ropes; just a week earlier Matsuyama had dusted the field by five at the WGC-Bridgestone, picking up his fifth PGA Tour win.
I was hopeful Bob Turner could fill in some of the gaps. Turner fills several roles for Matsuyama: manager, interpreter, general fix-it man. If you saw Matsuyama’s press conference after the third round of the Masters on Saturday, Turner was the guy seated to Matsuyama’s left.
It’s hard to overstate the scrutiny Matsuyama is under. Wherever he travels in golf circles, a scrum of Japanese media follows. Matsuyama, who holds a commanding four-shot lead with 18 holes to play in the 85th Masters, was asked on Saturday evening if he feels any less pressure this week given Covid protocols have limited the number of reporters at the tournament. “I’m not sure how to answer this in a good way, but being in front of the media is still difficult,” Matsuyama said through Turner. “I’m glad the media are here covering it, but it’s not my favorite thing to do, to stand and answer questions. And so with fewer media, it’s been a lot less stressful for me.”
On that August day at Quail Hollow, I had arranged to meet Turner in Matsuyama’s gallery; Matsuyama was in the final group with Kevin Kisner and Jason Day. When I caught up with Turner on the 2nd hole, I wasted little time peppering him with questions about what Matsuyama is like off the course: hobbies? Favorite TV show? A special someone in his life? That kind of stuff. Turner was reluctant to part with much color, either because he didn’t want to share details of Matsuyama’s off-the-course life or because he simply didn’t have answers for the kinds of questions I was asking. I suspected it was a bit of both. Matsuyama, Turner said, ate, drank and slept golf. “There’s not much,” he said. “That’s just who he is.”
Later that afternoon, I caught up with a few Japanese reporters, who cover Matsuyama full-time. “He’s really, really shy,” Eiko Oizumi, a writer and photographer for Golf Today Japan, told me. “He doesn’t want to show his private life.” Oizumi added that the Japanese media is reluctant to ask him questions about his off-course pursuits for fear of making him uncomfortable. Reiko Takekawa, a Japanese golf writer based in California, felt that Matsuyama had a responsibility to reveal more of his personality to his adoring and curious fanbase. “Once he wins a major, it’s all going to change,” she said.
Matsuyama shot 73 in that third round, falling one behind Kisner’s 54-hole lead. On Sunday, Matsuyama signed for a 72, finishing in a tie for fifth, three back of Justin Thomas.
Two days later, Matsuyama was in Old Westbury, N.Y., on Long Island, for the Northern Trust. “I never thought I would be sitting here with all of you as the leader of the FedEx Cup at this point of the season,” Matsuyama told reporters, again through Turner, during his pre-tournament press conference. Matsuyama went on to talk about how he had been “hoping and praying” to win the PGA and how he needed to work on his “inconsistent putting.” But there was other news. A day earlier, Matsuyama had revealed that he had become a father.
This was a stunner, not so much because no one knew Matsuyama’s wife was pregnant but more so because no one knew Matsuyama was married.
“No one really asked me if I was married, so I didn’t have to answer that question,” Matsuyama said. He had tied the knot in January of that year, he said, and become a father in July. “But I felt that after the PGA would be a good time, because our baby is born and I thought that would be a good time to let everyone know.”
According to the PGA Tour website, Matsuyama’s wife’s name is Mei and their daughter is Kanna.
Matsuyama is on the cusp of history. If he can close the deal at Augusta National, he will become Japan’s first male major winner, which will elevate his celebrity in his homeland from one stratosphere to the next. All that stands in his way is the crucible of Masters Sunday.
Can Matsuyama do it?
Of all the unanswered questions about him, that is the most intriguing of them all.