There are lessons from Australia in how Japanese golf should react to its first Masters champion.
Australian golf fans lamented the lost chance of Marc Leishman quickly in the final round of the Masters in April. The Victorian began the last day with just one player placed higher on the leaderboard – the eventual winner, Hideki Matsuyama – but it was not to be.
It was Matsuyama’s time, not Leishman’s (although we can be confident that day will still come). Likewise, it was Japan’s time, just as it was Australia’s when Adam Scott sank the two putts of his life to win the green jacket eight years ago, with Leishman looking on. There are easy comparisons to be drawn between the two situations: two golf-proud nations longing for that first Masters title. And finally the day came.
When Scott won the 77th Masters Tournament in 2013, there was a feeling within the sport here that his green jacket was the tonic golf in Australia needed. Not that the game was hemorrhaging, mind you, but it was still in something of a malaise in the post-Greg Norman era – especially on the tournament front. Scott did the dutiful (and commendable) thing by committing to all the big events at home the next summer and parading his jacket at every opportunity.
Matsuyama will surely feel the same pressure later this year when the Japan Golf Tour reaches its crescendo. Steve Price, the golf-loving and at times controversial radio host, asked me on-air on the Monday morning when Matsuyama captured the green jacket whether the powers-that-be here will try to lure Matsuyama to Australia to compete at the end of this year. I replied that he would be more likely to play in Japan than here – for much the same reason Scott booked a full summer schedule at home in 2013.
Still, it occurred to me later in the day that it’s an odd link to make – the connection between a Major tournament victory and an expected instant boom for the sport in the winner’s homeland. As COVID taught us last year, so many other factors go in to boosting participation, many of which are circumstantial. Did a legion of newcomers flock to golf in the wake of Scott’s Masters victory? No. Did a plethora of new sponsors beat down the doors of the PGA Tour of Australasia and Golf Australia in 2013? No.
We all basked in the glory of Scott’s victory but in many ways the sun set on it faster than in a midwinter’s day.
‘This will do for Japanese golf what Greg Norman did for my generation. – Brendan Jones’
Even with an Olympic Games (hopefully) on its horizon, Japan’s golf scene will now experience the same situation Australia did. The lessons from here in 2013 might be useful; or not. Japan has a strong tour already – far stronger than it gets credit for – and golf in Japan is different. It isn’t an all-year pastime in some parts of the country and most courses are the exclusive domain of members paying exorbitant annual fees. Trips to a driving range are viewed as a privilege and playing 18 holes can be an all-day affair, often with a lengthy lunch between nines and an onsen bath afterwards.
But two touring pros who know an awful lot more about golf in the Land of the Rising Sun than I do can certainly see the upside of Matsuyama’s historic triumph. Brendan Jones, who is now a 20-year veteran of the Japan Golf Tour and a 15-time winner there, says Matsuyama can ignite the game in his homeland.
“This will do for Japanese golf what Greg Norman did for my generation, or what you see now with the young guys who were inspired by Adam Scott,” Jones says. “Yes, there are cultural differences between us and the Japanese, but this is massive for Japan. [Ryo] Ishikawa was the great hope but he hasn’t lit the world up like the Japanese wanted him to and expected him too. Matsuyama wasn’t nearly as popular as Ishikawa, but he had the brash arrogance that I guess you need to be the best. He wasn’t concerned about the popular vote in Japan; he was more concerned with letting his clubs do the talking.
“Those two have had pressure put on them by the Japanese and media in Japan that is not comparable to anything I can think of.”
Matthew Griffin, who has played on the Japan Golf Tour since 2015, notes that the game in Japan and the Japanese circuit needs an injection of interest and popularity as much as Australia did in 2013 and does today. Like it does here, an ageing population makes up the majority of the golfers in Japan, so it needs a boost for the younger people.
“I think and hope it will be very similar,” Griffin says. “The golf situations are very similar with dwindling demand and the tours struggling so it can only help. From what I’ve heard participation rates have increased similar to Australia since COVID so golf is back in the right direction. Tour-wise, most events have held on but most have reduced their prizemoney by $200,000 to $500,000, so hopefully this helps turn that around.”
With a Masters champion of its own and an Olympic Games drawing nearer, the timing for Japan could not have been more ideal. Let’s see what the country makes of it.
FEATURED IMAGE: Getty images: kevin C. Cox, jared C. Tilton