Hideki – the Senpai Who Continues to Inspire Asia

It was more than a decade ago, but India’s S Chikkarangappa vividly remembers his trip to Kasumigaseki Country Club in Japan for the second edition of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship (AAC) in 2010.

With opportunities for the winner to compete in two of golf’s major championships, the Masters Tournament and The Open, the AAC had already established itself as the must-win event for the region’s finest amateurs.

Raised in poverty, Chikka lived in the vicinity of a golf club in Bengaluru. Working there as a ball spotter, he met famous coach Vijay Divecha, who took him under his wing and taught him a number of things, from conversing in English to hitting a draw on demand, which helped his preparations for Kasumigaseki.

On the eve of the 2010 AAC, there was just one name everyone seemed to be talking about – Japan’s Yosuke Asaji. Asaji, like Chikka, grew up next to a driving range and would spend every waking moment practicing there. His short game, they said, was the stuff legends are made of.

On the range at Kasumigaseki, the scrawny Chikka picked out a player who most matched his own physique. A chap by the name of Hideki Matsuyama.

Playing with Japanese guests in Bengaluru, he had picked up some phrases in their language, and it helped strike a conversation. Chikka’s broken Japanese and Hideki’s broken English were a match made in heaven.

On one of the practice days, Chikka asked Matsuyama about Asaji.

“Oooh Asaji san! He’s very good. Short game very, very good. But I beat him, and I win this tournament,” Matsuyama replied.

Chikka insists there was not a hint of arrogance in the way Matsuyama said it. All he could sense was a deep respect for Asaji, and an even deeper belief in his own ability.

Matsuyama won his first AAC by a whopping five strokes that year and successfully defended his title the following year in Singapore.

A legend of Asian golf was born.

Matsuyama’s Rise

As far as success stories go, the AAC could not have written one better than Matsuyama.

As AAC champion, the now 29-year-old made the cut at the 2011 Masters and earned Low Amateur honors. He won a professional title on the Japan Golf Tour as an amateur and also became the first Japanese player to occupy the top spot on the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR).

In 2013, he joined the paid rank and became the first rookie player to win the money list on the Japan Golf Tour that year. He went on to secure his PGA Tour card in 2014.

And while he has won two World Golf Championship events, four other regular PGA Tour events and eight Japan Golf Tour titles since then, Matsuyama etched his name forever in the annals of golf by becoming the first Asian player to win the Masters this year.

“With all his achievements, he has been an inspiration to the young players. There’s no doubt he’s given them immense belief as Japanese golfers,” said National Team coach Gareth Jones.

“He has shown them the pathway… coming through the Japanese college system, he has kind of set down the tracks for them. And then to win the AAC title twice and have all the global success, players like Takumi Kanaya and Keita Nakajima are inspired to follow in his footsteps.

“It’s a cultural thing over there, the leadership culture…their senpai culture where older individuals, whether golfers or not, they are sort of the spiritual leaders of the young people. And when you have someone as successful as Hideki, the younger athletes look up to him. They watch what he does and they follow his example.

“Hideki sets extremely high standards. But the young players in Japan now believe those high standards are achievable. They believe they can do it, because they’ve seen one of their own do it. His winning the Masters, obviously, has been a watershed moment for Japan and Asian golf. All those results and opportunities have come through the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. And that is not lost on the young players.”

Certainly not on WAGR No. 1 Nakajima, the highest-ranked player in this week’s field at Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, and not on Kanaya, winner of the 2018 AAC in Singapore.

“Hideki san has been so much more than just an inspiration,” said Kanaya, who received calls and text messages from Matsuyama throughout his winning 2018 AAC campaign. “He is my mentor. I know I can reach him for advice at any time, whether it is an issue with my golf game, or otherwise.”

“It’s my dream to be able to play a couple of practice rounds at Augusta National Golf Club with Hideki san,” said Nakajima. “But for that to happen, I will have to do what he, and my best friend Takumi, did – win the AAC.

Matsuyama’s influence is not limited to young Japanese players. Even his peers feel he is pushing them to get out of their comfort zone.

“From those days in 2011, Hideki has grown a lot, not just physically, but also in stature. But honestly, I knew it back then that he’d make it big on the world stage,” said Chikka, who finished 56th and T-46 the two years Matsuyama won and as high as 12th in 2012.

“We were together in the Bonallack Trophy in Portugal in 2012. I was really tired from my flight. I went to my room and opened the window, and there I saw a sweaty Hideki, who had a much longer flight than me, running around in the front lawn.

“It was an eye opener for me. It is one thing to have the confidence that Hideki has, but the fact is, his confidence is backed up by hard work that he puts in. I have learned a lot watching him from those AAC days, and I still learn a lot just watching him.”

The 12th edition of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship begins November 3 with the final round concluding November 6 to crown the AAC’s next champion.

Written by Joy Chakravarty