AKRON, Ohio — Hideki Matsuyama has high standards. We know this not via words, but language. Body language. How often do we see him turn away from a shot in disgust, only to watch it land close to the hole?
Sunday was one of those days where Matsuyama appeared not to have it. He said as much through his interpreter Bob Turner after winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. You could see it in his demeanor.
During his warm-up on the range, CBS analyst Dottie Pepper noted how poor the session was, calling it “one of the worst” she had ever seen. “You wouldn’t believe how I warmed up this morning,” Matsuyama said.
No interpretation was necessary, however, when Matsuyama blistered Firestone Country Club for a course record-tying 61 that included an eagle and seven birdies.
He hit 16 greens in regulation, led the field for the week in strokes gained tee-to-green and around-the-green and cruised to a 5-shot victory for his second World Golf Championship title this season.
“I was nervous all the way around because I really wasn’t sure of my swing today,” he said.
Must be nice.
Matsuyama, 25, might have amazed himself but he hardly has been a surprise to the golf world at large, which saw him twice finish as the low amateur at the Masters after winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur. He has now won five times on the PGA Tour and six of his past 20 worldwide starts.
He is ranked third in the world and will be among the favorites to win the PGA Championship this week at Quail Hollow — where he would become the first Japanese player to win a men’s major title.
That is a pressure unto itself, especially in a sports-mad country where his every move has been chronicled. But it doesn’t much compare to trying to adapt to a new country, a new language, a new culture.
Like all Japanese athletes who come to the United States, there is a huge adjustment period, one that Matsuyama acknowledged through his interpreter.
“There’s been a lot of different things,” he said. “The English especially. I would love to be able to speak with all of you right now. I wouldn’t need Bob and I could … every day would be no stress and I could enjoy life and everything and get to know everybody.
“How that converted over to good golf, I don’t know if it helped or not, but I do look forward to the day that I can converse with all of you in English.”
Matsuyama is hardly free of media obligations. At most U.S. tournaments, there are a minimum of 10 Japanese journalists who chronicle his every move, following hole by hole, then asking him detailed questions about his round afterward.
The queries rarely delve into his personal life, but Matsuyama has been known to get frustrated by the inquisitions, as they explore the intricacies of his rounds. But when asked about it Sunday, Matsuyama noted that he had been in Europe (he played the Irish Open and The Open) before returning to Japan before coming to Akron.
“It’s something I don’t look forward to, but I was in Europe for three weeks and there wasn’t much Japanese media, not many there, so it’s nice now to be able to speak with the media again and I’m enjoying it more and more,” he said. “And I’m sure I’ll enjoy it even more later on today after this interview.”
That response drew laughter from the Japanese media contingent, and whether Matsuyama was being honest or simply showing a sense of humor is not quite clear.
He did two Japanese television interviews and then met for 10 more minutes with Japanese print media, who learned he had not looked at a leaderboard all day until the 16th hole, where he realized he was in front. From there, he birdied the last three holes.
One thing is certain: He won’t avoid such attention if he continues to play the way he has during the past year.
In his past 20 starts, Matsuyama has six wins — two on the Japan Tour, the unofficial Hero World Challenge and three PGA Tour titles — two of which are WGC events. In addition, he has four more top 10s and five more top-25 finishes in that stretch.
From his Japan Open triumph last fall, he had a stretch of seven top-2 finishes in nine events through the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he successfully defended his title.
Then Matsuyama cooled off, his only top 10 until Sunday was a tied for second at the U.S. Open, 4 shots behind winner Brooks Koepka.
Because he went to his home in Sendai, Japan, (Matsuyama also has a home near Bay Hill in Orlando, Florida) last week, he arrived in Akron with modest expectations.
“Every day I seemed to get closer and closer to where I wanted to be,” he said. “Never thinking I would be sitting here right now talking with all of you.”
Matsuyama began the final round 2 strokes back of leaders Zach Johnson and Thomas Pieters but quickly got into the lead by chipping in for an eagle at the second hole and making a birdie at the third.
Four years ago, Matsuyama was paired with Tiger Woods when he shot 61 here “and I just couldn’t believe that anyone could shoot 61 on this golf course,” he said. “And then from that point, to work hard and be able to do it today is a dream come true.”
So is being among the world’s best, where Matsuyama has proved he belongs — mostly by letting his clubs do the talking.