Asian golf has a new star in Matsuyama

(Julio Cortez/AP)
July 16, 2013, 11:58 AM

GULLANE — Move over Ryo Ishikawa, Asian golf finally has a new star.

With two wins on the Japanese tour this year and an unexpected 10th-place finish at last month’s U.S. Open, Hideki Matsuyama is carrying the hopes of Japan and the rest of Asia heading into his first British Open.

Not an easy task for a player who turned professional only in April. But Matsuyama is taking everything in stride.

“As far as taking over from Ishikawa, I haven’t even thought of that,” said Matsuyama, ranked No. 44 to make him Asia’s leading golfer. “All I’m doing is trying to play the best golf that I can, gain the experience that I need.”

Fearless and always sharply dressed, Ishikawa blew onto the scene in 2007 after winning his first tournament at age 15 and, two years later, became the youngest player to enter the world’s top 50.

The major title that many predicted would quickly arrive never came, though. His presence on the PGA Tour has given him more exposure, but he is dropping steadily down the rankings, from No. 64 this time last year to a current No. 153. That puts him only 13th in Asia.

There are eight Japanese players at Muirfield this week. Ishikawa isn’t one of them.

It’s fellow 21-year-old Matsuyama, last year’s top amateur, who is starting to hog the limelight — even more so now that he has been grouped with Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy for his first two rounds.

Those who have followed his progress closely struggle to find a weakness in Matsuyama’s game. Charming and polite — just like Ishikawa — he has a bigger frame and a wide smile. But out on the course, he is ruthless.

He announced himself to the world by making the cut at his first two Masters, in 2011 and ’12, but his game has soared since turning pro. Seven top-10 finishes in eight Japanese Tour events, including two wins and two runner-ups, and that great showing at Merion on the toughest stage of all.

“The finish at the U.S. Open did a lot for my confidence,” Matsuyama said, “knowing that I can play on the world stage.”

Playing at Muirfield will further his education, especially considering his partners Thursday and Friday, who have won six majors between them.

Matsuyama has turned to compatriot Shigeki Maruyama, who finished one shot off the leaders in a tie for fifth at Muirfield in 2002, for advice about how to tackle the challenges of links golf this week.

He has had to reinvent his game, the low shots off the tee and the running approaches to the greens. He is a long driver, but he may have to rein that in on the fast and fiery tracks.

“I’ve never played on a course with harder fairways or harder greens,” he said. “So it’s been an adventure and a great learning experience for me.”

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