Sporting Life

Sporting Life: Burden of history is a tough weight for Matsuyama

The first time is always the hardest time. Because there are no reassuring footsteps to walk in. Because you're reminded every Major week what your nation hasn't done. Because everyone is relying on you alone to change its history.

And so it doesn't matter that Japan has a fabled history in sport, doesn't matter that at the 1932 Olympics it won gold and silver in four of the five individual men's swimming races, doesn't matter that Junko Tabei was the first woman to summit Everest, doesn't matter that they were the first Asians to win a figure skating world title and the Fifa Women's World Cup, because none of that can help the gifted Hideki Matsuyama.

He with the brief stopover on top of his swing as if he's pausing before writing golfing haiku. He with the 61 earlier this month. He who has the great Isao Aoki (2nd, 1980 US Open) and Tsuneyuki Nakajima (3rd, 1988 PGA Championship) as role models, but nobody who has won a Major.

Maybe he should have had a word with Hisako Higuchi, who is Japanese and did win a Major, a women's one in 1977. Because Higuchi said that "on the final day I played my best golf" and Matsuyama can't find his best this Sunday at the PGA Championship. Maybe he's thinking too much about the first time.

His best is there for a few holes and then it leaves, he leads and then trails, he gets up and down from a bunker brilliantly at the 10th for birdie and then misses fairways and greens to bogey the next three holes. He has almost all the pieces of the winning jigsaw but can't get them to fit at the right time.

But this is why Sunday is triumphant, tense and heartbreaking all at once, which is precisely what sport should be. A chance to win will be lost by many and also pride and if the second one returns, the first sometimes never comes again.

On Sunday they are close, Matsuyama, Kevin Kisner, Chris Stroud, Justin Thomas and also Francesco Molinari, Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, all of them separated by talent and height and food preferences and yet joined at the golfing hip by a single truth: All want a Major and none know how to win one.

It doesn't matter that Japan has a fabled history in sport, doesn't matter that at the 1932 Olympics it won gold and silver in four of the five individual men's swimming races, doesn't matter that Junko Tabei was the first woman to summit Everest, doesn't matter that the Japanese were the first Asians to win the Fifa Women's World Cup, because none of that can help Hideki Matsuyama.

The course must be smelling of ambition but the very idea of victory is a hell of a thing, for you can want it too badly. You can see it nine holes away and trip over it and overthink it and find that your arms and hips don't function as precisely as ordered. Kisner has sunk 53 putts under seven feet and then on the 11th he doesn't and bogeys.

He is hardly alone. On the back nine, between him, Thomas, Matsuyama and Stroud they will have 13 bogeys and two doubles. But Thomas' contribution is a single bogey, on the 18th, by which time the inscriber is halfway through scratching his name onto the Wanamaker Trophy. He makes the fewest errors at the biggest moments. Consistency, not flair, is the first rule of winning.

Thomas is 65kg which according to most boxing bodies classifies him as a welterweight and he hits the ball with the venom of an uncoiling Manny Pacquiao. He is first in driving distance (average 327.9 yards) and tied second in putting accuracy which, to continue a boxing analogy, is an excellent one-two punch.

But he has something else on Sunday which Matsuyama doesn't have, or Kisner, or Stroud, something immeasurable yet profound which you can't win without. Let's call it luck.

At the 10th hole - where his drive has already hit a tree and rebounded onto the fairway - his ball balances on the edge of the hole forever, like an unsure cliff diver on the precipice, before toppling in for birdie. A millimetre further away and he won't gain a stroke. These are the margins of Majors.

There is one final thing, the icing, and that is the great shot, which looks fortuitous but is the child of a million practice shots. Thomas' chip-in for birdie on the par-three 13th from around 40 feet is a skilful marriage of method and nerve. Quite simply, he has found something in himself no one else has.

And so one man wins and the others wait, for another year, for April, to resume their chase again. Kisner, 33, and Stroud, 35, will be smarting and rueful and yet the nature of athletes is to distil positivity even from deep disappointment. They will keep pressing and playing, for without the game they are incomplete.

Matsuyama is only 25, already has a reputation for hard work, owns a series of fine finishes in Majors - T10, T6, 5, T7, T4, T2, T5 - is the world's second best golfer, has five US PGA Tour titles and demoralises creative golf course architects by producing such outrageous rounds that one might think he's on a children's chip-and-putt course.

Perhaps it is only his weight which is slowing him down, not the kilograms he carries but the burden of a nation waiting, a nation that's used to winning in sport, a nation which expects to win a Major in men's golf. To free his arms maybe Matsuyama must learn to forget history, forget about playing for anything but himself, forget about the first time. And just believe that it is his time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2017, with the headline 'Burden of history is a tough weight for Matsuyama'. Print Edition | Subscribe