SHANGHAI • Defending champion Hideki Matsuyama admitted yesterday that he is under pressure to replicate the storming performance that propelled him to WGC-HSBC Champions glory in Shanghai last year.
The Japanese opens his defence of "Asia's Major" today alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson of the United States and fast-rising Spaniard Jon Rahm.
The trio are among the headline attractions of a star-studded field at the US$9.75 million (S$13.3 million) showpiece at Sheshan International Golf Club.
Other leading contenders at the event, which is sanctioned by both the PGA Tour and European Tour, include last year's runner-up Henrik Stenson, Rio Olympic champion Justin Rose and a clutch of current and former Major winners in Phil Mickelson, Jason Day and Brooks Koepka.
The 25-year-old Matsuyama became the first Asian to win a World Golf Championship a year ago and it was the catalyst for a brilliant run that also delivered the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational title in August.
"It is different coming back as defending champion," said Matsuyama, the world No. 4 who seared his way to victory last year by a comprehensive seven shots.
"I don't want to put a lot of pressure or expectation on myself, I just want to let the tournament come to me, like it did last year.
"All I can do is try to play my best and hopefully I will play well."
He is scheduled to play a round with US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe next month when the former visits Asia.
KEEPING WORKING ON IT
I know a lot of us have tried from Japan to win Majors. Hopefully some day it will happen.
HIDEKI MATSUYAMA, Japan's world No. 4, whose best finish in a Major tournament was joint second in this year's US Open.
Making Matsuyama's task all the harder, he will also have to contend with a growing challenge from the home golfers, led by rising talent Li Haotong, who underlined his potential with an eye-catching third-placed finish at July's British Open.
Matsuyama added that he believes Asian players still have a gap to make up on the top American and European players, with the current top three in the world all from the US - Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.
And he said that having got close to the top of the world rankings, he now had a battle to stay there, particularly with the likes of the powerful world No. 5 Rahm coming up fast behind him.
Matsuyama started the new wraparound season with a tie for fifth in the CIMB Classic in Malaysia. He also has a much bigger career goal - to become the first player from his nation to win a Major.
Isao Aoki recorded the best result by a Japanese golfer in a Major when he finished second in the 1980 US Open at Baltusrol.
Matsuyama equalled that feat when he closed with a 66 to tie for second, four shots behind Koepka in the US Open at Erin Hills in June.
"I know a lot of us have tried from Japan to win Majors. Hopefully, some day it will happen," said Matsuyama, who has finished in the top 10 seven times in the Majors.
Top-ranked Johnson has mastered the HSBC tournament before, winning it in 2013, and it would be a surprise if he fails to challenge this week.
"I'm always excited to come here and I've had a lot of success in this tournament, it's something I look forward to," he said.
"My game is getting there, I had three weeks off so a little rusty, but hopefully, I knocked all of the rust off today (practising)," added the 33-year-old, who spent the time off doing gym work and a spot of fishing.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
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