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Injury cloud hangs over Matsuyama's defense

By CHUAH CHOO CHIANG | China Daily | Updated: 2022-04-06 09:38
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Hideki Matsuyama looks on during practice for the Masters at Augusta National on Sunday. The defending champion has been hampered by neck and back injuries in recent weeks. AFP

The same golfing gods who ensured a historic first Masters triumph for Asia some 12 months ago are now being called upon to ensure Japan's Hideki Matsuyama is fully fit to put up a worthy title defense this week.

His one-stroke victory at Augusta National last year sparked Matsuyama-mania in golf-mad Japan, with enthusiasts thronging driving ranges and courses, buying the same equipment that he uses, and even mimicking his trademark pause on the backswing.

Upon his return home, the country's long-awaited first male major champion was honored as a hero with the Prime Minister's Award.

He went on to win the Zozo Championship, the PGA Tour's only tournament in Japan, and Sony Open in Hawaii during a spectacular nine-month stretch.

However, troubling neck and back injuries saw the 30-year-old pull out of his last two events-The Players Championship in early March and last week's Valero Texas Open.

The world No 12 said he withdrew from Texas to preserve his body and channel all his focus and energy toward his return to Augusta National.

"I've been receiving a lot of treatment, getting prepared. I'll do my best to prepare well so I can defend my title at Augusta," Matsuyama said last month.

"I haven't been able to practice as much as I'd like, but what I have been doing I feel like I'm on the right track."

It may not be ideal preparation for the year's first major, but 12 months ago Matsuyama set foot on Georgia's hallowed turf without a hint that he would claim the Green Jacket, until something "clicked" on the practice range.

Mexican Abraham Ancer, who was one of Matsuyama's playing partners in the opening two rounds last year, recalled the Japanese star enjoying the rub of the greens en route to rounds of 69 and 71 to position himself for a weekend major charge.

"It looked like he was playing some good golf and even if he hit a wayward shot, he found a way to make birdie or make the most out of it. Whenever you see somebody making the putts when they need to and if they happen to hit a wayward shot it happens to kick back onto the fairway, you can see it was something special brewing for sure," said Ancer.

Whether or not Matsuyama is 100 percent fit, it is a certainty he will tee it up as reigning Masters champion and compete through any pain until he can no longer endure.

Winning the Masters was a lifelong goal since he made his Augusta National debut in 2011.

"It's been a great blessing to become the Masters champion. It's been great to go to various tournaments and to be introduced as the Masters champion," he said. "Being the first Japanese to win a major, and especially the Masters, has made me really happy. I know I'm a happier person."

Ancer is delighted for Matsuyama as he appreciates the weight he carries on his shoulders each week.

"It's unbelievable… he goes everywhere, he's got a lot of people and media following him. Probably only Tiger (Woods) is the guy out here that deals with that more than him, but I can see how much pressure he could feel for sure. Being in Japan a couple of times now, I realize how big golf is over there and Hideki is an absolute legend for the whole country. I can definitely see the magnitude of winning an event like that and what it has meant for Japan."

Before his shortened week in Texas, Matsuyama told a media conference he sets his own expectations-an approach which has been a driving force for his vast success, including eight wins on the PGA Tour.

He also admitted to being jittery about hosting the traditional Champions Dinner where he will set the menu and say a few words to a room occupied exclusively by Masters champions.

"Looking forward is one way to put it; another is I really hope I play well. There are some expectations from myself, whether it's pressure or not," he said. "The same with the Champions Dinner. I don't speak English very well, and so it's kind of a two-sided coin. I'm looking forward to it, of course, to be with all those great past Masters champions, but at the same time too, very nervous about the speech I will be giving."

The writer is senior director of marketing& communications for the PGA Tour and is based in Malaysia

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