David Howell: Matsuyama finally finds the route to Major success for Japan

TWENTY THREE years or so ago I first stepped foot on Japanese soil, a nation enthralled by the game of golf, a nation that has brought its own original twist to the game in a quiet yet splendid way. Nowhere around the globe could rival the elitist nature of golf in Japan. Perhaps that has nothing to be particularly proud of as a visitor, but it was an experience so very different from what I grew up with.

Courses manicured beyond belief, silky greens the speed of snooker tables, pro-ams that took six hours courtesy of three pit stops on the way round, and even cups in the holes that made a completely different sound, like a small bell ringing to announce another hole completed.

Australians and Americans dress comfortably to play the game; we Brits, of course, dress for the weather with heavy jumpers, waterproofs and trousers capable of coping with a fair amount of mud splattering about. In Japan everybody I saw seemed to dress like they had just walked straight out of a classy catalogue photoshoot, each and every one of them dressed to the nines, splendid, simply splendid.

Some might say it’s surprising that it has taken this long for someone from Japan to finally win a Major championship. Historically, the Japanese players have been outsiders, through no fault of their own. Why travel around the world to compete when huge rewards were available on their own doorstep. The Japanese Tour provided huge sums in bygone eras, so it was hardly surprising that the stars of the 80’s and 90’s felt out of their comfort zone when they were coming down the stretch in a Major championship.

Hideki Matsuyama has changed all that and finally gone where Aioki, and the Ozaki brothers never quite managed to slip that most famous of Green Jacket onto his shoulders, celebrated the hopes of an entire nation. Undoubtedly, playing full time on the PGA Tour helped Hideki cope with those pressures, something that wasn’t so common until now. But were it not for the Japanese stars of the past paving the way then who knows if this year’s Masters Champion would ever have even picked up a golf club. Make no mistake, today’s top Japanese golfers really are sporting stars in their homeland, which really is just wonderful isn’t it.

What a thrill it was for this young man, the classiest of professionals, and someone who is universally liked and admired, to have finally broken through that Major championship barrier, who can now continue to build the fanatical support that has always followed the Japanese players around the globe. Some victories just feel good for the game – Hideki winning The Masters is certainly one of those of which there is no doubt.

Back on the European Tour we have just felt our first glimpse of freedom when we played in Gran Canaria. I say that because for the first time since last July we were actually allowed out of our hotels for dinner, allbeit still confined to our pods of four people – two players and two caddies, and all sitting outside, but boy it was nice to feel some sort of normality. Ironic then that the hotel buffet was wonderful and included in the price!

Our Tour is working wonderfully in hosting events week after week, but the logistics are getting harder and harder, if truth be told. The South African players could not get into Spain unless they played in Austria first, and now we Brits are running the Gauntlet every time we fly home due to track and trace protocols being tightened in the last few weeks. The Australians are still facing two weeks in quarantine every time they return home – now that really is a tough gig.

Having missed two cuts I needed to get home to clear my head and reset my game. If one person on my flight from Madrid should test positive for covid-19 then that’s me isolating for ten days, and two weeks off will be had instead of one. To say it’s stressful is an understatement, but these are stressful times, as we all know.

FEAR OF NOT BEING ON TOUR ANY MORE

One thing I don’t seem to know is how to play golf very well at the moment. Quite frankly, I am in the worst slump of my entire career, working as hard as ever and seeing nothing for it. Right now any illusion of the glamour of being a touring professional has been washed away in a sea of missed cuts, airport queues, entry and exit paperwork, QR codes and hotel bubbles.

So, I write this article from the comfort of my own home, having taken the risk of returning home to see my family and friends, and to rethink just how I’m going about the game – and to be happy for a week without wayward shots and missed putts cutting into my soul once again, and to re-energise for the next run of events that are the most critical of my career to date.

I have always loved my job – it’s the only one I have ever known, and for the first time in twenty-five years I face the prospect of perhaps not being on Tour next year, so the fight starts again, right now.

Some straight drives, a few well struck mid -rons and a tidy short game is all that is needed. That sounds so simple when I type out that sentence, but, alas, we know that golf can be a difficult mistress, one degree here and another degree there can make all the difference. The game is as frustrating as it is intoxicating, I am hoping that some of the latter will start to take over from the former, starting in Tenerife next week, if I am not track and traced that is! n

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