Matsuyama effect gives Japanese golf its day in the sun

Tokyo (AFP) –


A breakthrough Masters win just months from the Tokyo Olympics has catapulted Japanese golf into the spotlight, bringing deserved recognition for a country that has long loved the game.

From businessmen swinging imaginary clubs at train stations, to the ubiquitous multi-storey driving ranges, Japan's passion for golf is not hard to spot.

When Hideki Matsuyama became Japan's first male major-winner -- following Hisako Higuchi and Hinako Shibuno in the women's game -- golf-related stocks surged and broadcasters held back tears on live TV.

Hiroshi Yamanaka, managing director of the Japan Golf Association, said Matsuyama's one-shot win could inspire a new generation of players after its heyday in the boom years of the late 1980s.

"The Masters is a tournament that everyone has heard of, whether they play golf or not," Yamanaka told AFP.

"It puts golf in the spotlight, and maybe it will inspire people to try it for themselves."

Matsuyama's victory was watched by a rapt TV audience in his home country, where around seven million people play golf.

It prompted blanket media coverage as newspapers rushed to publish special online editions.

At a large driving range in Tokyo on Monday, amateur players were savouring Matsuyama's victory as they hit balls off the tees.

"When I saw that Matsuyama, who is usually very stoic, had tears in his eyes, and when I heard the emotion in the commentator's voice, I couldn't hold back my own tears," said restaurant owner Teruyuki Onogi.

Japanese golf took a big step forward in October 2019 when it started hosting its first US PGA Tour event, the Zozo Championship, with fans flocking to see world-class stars like Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.

But golf was popular in Japan long before, fuelled by players like Masashi "Jumbo" Ozaki and Tsuneyuki "Tommy" Nakajima, who found international success without managing to win a major.

- 'Played by old men' -

Matsuyama's win has even sparked speculation that he could be asked to light the Olympic cauldron at the Tokyo opening ceremony on July 23.

"If the schedules worked out and I'm in Japan when that happens and they ask me, what an honour that would be," he said.

Golf returned to the Olympic programme at Rio 2016 after a 102-year absence, and JGA executive Yamanaka is hoping the Tokyo Games will lift participation in Japan.

The number of Japanese golfers has decreased since the 1980s, when the sport's close relationship with business made it "an important tool" for companies, Yamanaka said.

He admitted that golf's expensive image still makes it "something that feels distant for young people", but he says attitudes are changing and Matsuyama's win can "accelerate" the trend.

"It's not just Matsuyama -- we have a lot of good young players, especially women," Yamanaka said.

"A lot of parents want their daughters to become pro golfers nowadays."

Higuchi won the 1977 LPGA Championship and Shibuno triumphed at the 2019 Women's British Open, while former players like Ai Miyazato are household names in Japan.

Yamanaka says golf has become more accessible for people of all ages in recent years, and that more women and young people are getting involved.

He says the sport has also benefited from the pandemic, with people seeing it as a safer way to keep fit than gyms or other indoor activities.

At the driving range on Monday, restaurant owner Onogi agreed that Matsuyama's win could help revamp golf's image in Japan.

"As the news spreads, people might stop considering golf to be a sport played by old men, and take an interest in it," he said.

"If we can create a more inclusive environment that allows people to take up golf more easily, I think Japanese will become better at it."