Twelve months ago, the Japanese golf star fired a career low 9-under 63 at The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass to lead the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship, only for the PGA TOUR’s flagship tournament to be cancelled hours later due to COVID-19.
The 29-year-old since regrets not utilizing his time better at home after the TOUR implemented a three-month shutdown, citing Bryson DeChambeau, who re-emerged all bulked up before powering his way to two eye-catching wins, including the U.S. Open, and last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard.
But Matsuyama will still get his chance again at this week’s US$15 million star-studded event, which continues to deliver the TOUR’s golden standard in sports and entertainment, as well as showcase the strongest field in golf at the iconic Stadium Course.
The five-time TOUR winner said he did not think about what may have happened if last year’s tournament was not disrupted, choosing instead to look forward towards another opportunity to challenge for the prestigious PLAYERS title.
“I was able to play well last year but all of us were put in a pretty difficult position at that moment. I’m just looking forward to another opportunity to play well and compete,” said Matsuyama, who is the most successful Japanese golfer on TOUR.
“I enjoyed back-to-back top 10s (at The Genesis Invitational and WGC-Mexico Championship last year) but played very poorly at the Arnold Palmer (Invitational), so I wasn’t sure what to expect at THE PLAYERS and ended up playing very well in the first round. I recall putting in a new putter that week as I had been switching around to different putters and the putter I had worked very well. I was making little adjustments to my putting stroke and I was really hoping to maintain my form.”
Matsuyama’s track record at TPC Sawgrass, often regarded as the purest test in golf, suggests he can contend again. He finished T8 in 2019 and T7 in 2016 and registered three other top-25s in six appearances. His 63 before last year’s cancellation featured an eagle, eight birdies and one bogey.
His annual visit to the TOUR’s showpiece event along with seven consecutive appearances in the FedExCup Playoffs Finale, the TOUR Championship, is a reflection of Matsuyama’s sheer consistency. This season, he has one top-10 and five top-25s but the Japanese star longs to end a four-year winless drought.
“It means a lot each time I get to play. Obviously with THE PLAYERS, if you don’t make the top-125 in the FedExCup points list, you don’t get in. It shows how consistent I’ve been and it’s a goal of mine to one day become THE PLAYERS champion. It is on my list of tournaments I hope to win one day and if that’s something I’m able to accomplish, I’ll be extremely happy,” said Matsuyama, whose best result this season was a runner-up finish at the Houston Open.
“Day-by-day, my game is improving and I feel good about my chances of winning this year. The most important thing is to have everything come together at the right time and I feel pretty good about my chances.”
As he reflected on last year’s shutdown, Matsuyama conceded he could have made better use of his time at home during the hiatus. “When the cancellation was announced, I felt it was understandable given the circumstance. I was not upset. I realised we were going to have some tough times ahead. At that time, it was reported the Masters was still going to take place so I decided to stay on in the States and practice at home (in Orlando), compete in the Masters before going back to Japan,” said Matsuyama.
“When reports (on the pandemic) started to get worse, I realized it was safer to go back to Japan. I had no idea when the season was going to resume and it was difficult to set up a schedule. Even if I did, I didn’t know if it was going to be good for me. Reflecting on the two months hiatus, I regret that I could have utilized the time a little better. I should have made a detailed plan and focused on improving on the certain parts of my game.
“You can really see the growth from DeChambeau. Looking at him, I feel I have wasted my time. I’m not comparing myself to other people, but when I look back, I think to myself that I should have done this training or worked on that part of my game. It’s not great to regret about the past. But I think it’s important to remember this feeling.”
HISTORY-MAKER KIM EYES NEW MILESTONES AS HE RETURNS TO THE PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP
Being the youngest victor of THE PLAYERS Championship holds great pride and joy for Korea’s Si Woo Kim. But the 25-year-old is hoping it will not remain the biggest highlight of his PGA TOUR career.
Kim was a surprise winner on The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in 2017, where he became only the second Asian and Korean golfer after countryman K.J. Choi in 2011 to triumph in the PGA TOUR’s flagship tournament. He was just 21 years old at the time only nine months removed from his maiden TOUR title at the Wyndham Championship.
A mixture of injuries and indifferent form saw the Korean talent take nearly four more years to secure victory No. 3 at The American Express at PGA West (Stadium) in La Quinta earlier this year, and he is hoping the good times will keep rolling from now onward.
When he steps into the winners’ locker room at TPC Sawgrass this week, Kim said it will bring back happy memories. “It is very special. I feel THE PLAYERS is a major tournament. When I played here for the first time, it was a very special feeling. K.J. won as the first Korean and I had the next victory. It means a lot to me.
“I’m very proud of the youngest title, especially when it’s hard to do that at my age. I hope nobody breaks my record and I want my name to be remembered as a household name for golfers,” said Kim.
His journey to the PGA TOUR began at just eight years old, when his father, Du Ryu Kim, took him to the driving range in Seoul. Kim was instantly hooked as he tried to hit golf balls toward the pin flags.
“My father was a single handicap golfer and got me interested. When you see the flag as the target, I found it interesting to try to hit the flag. From there on, I knew I wanted to play on the PGA TOUR like Tiger (Woods) and K.J.,” said Kim.
Du Ryu added: “Every time I went to the range, he wanted to go with me. Si Woo was passionate about golf.”
As an amateur, Kim won the Korean Junior Championship four years in a row and made the national team when he was 16. From there his talents grew quickly, and he qualified for the PGA TOUR at 17 years, 5 months, 6 days old, becoming the youngest to graduate from the TOUR’s Qualifying School in 2012. However, he couldn’t become a full member until he turned 18.
He then played on the Korn Ferry Tour for two seasons and learned the ropes quickly. “The courses were not easy and players play aggressively, and you have to be 5-under to make the cut. It was hard for me at first to play like that as my usual score was around 2-under. Gradually I adjusted and learned and won in 2015 (Stonebrae Classic) and then got on the PGA TOUR in 2016,” he said.
He won in his rookie PGA TOUR season at the Wyndham Championship and then claimed a memorable victory at THE PLAYERS the following year, which was made famous for his driver of the deck shot on the 11th hole during the final round. Also, he recalled nearly withdrawing before the start of the final round.
“My back tightened up after the third round. Thirty minutes before I teed off (in the final day), I had a little bit of a muscle problem in my back, so my physiotherapist helped ease the pain. It was still there but I didn’t feel it because of the pressure of the event,” recalled Kim.
“The last three holes have hazards and I had so much pressure even though I was leading comfortably. It was only after the second shot on 18 that I finally felt I could win. I’ve never felt so nerve-racking.”
With three career victories to his name, Kim sits only behind Choi, who has eight wins, as the Korean with the second-most number of titles. He hopes to keep enjoying the game as much as he can to secure more silverware.
“I got back into the winner’s circle after three years and eight months. After my last win at THE PLAYERS, I thought I could win more easily but I couldn’t do well and I had a difficult time and went through some disappointments. That was hard for me,” said Kim.
“With this latest win, I hope I can overcome whatever obstacles ahead of me, and now that I have some momentum, I will try and do well again. I just want to keep going out and enjoying my game and playing golf. I think the next win will come naturally,” said Kim.
Published : March 10, 2021