Yuta Sugiura comes into the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship (AAC) as the highest-ranked player in the field.
Walking with a huge bullseye on his back is not something that worries Sugiura… it’s the responsibility of being the senpai of the Japanese team.
Senpai is a leadership development philosophy in Japanese culture and has its roots in Confucianism. Literally translated, it means ‘Senior’. A senpai usually has the same status in a team but is accorded more respect and a higher place in the hierarchy because he/she has spent more time in the program, and hence, has more knowledge. The person is expected to lead a kohai (junior) by example.
It’s a concept that the Japanese National Team has embraced for several years now, and it has led to some wonderful results. Takumi Kanaya was the senpai when he won the AAC title in Singapore in 2018, and Keita Nakajima enjoyed the same position in the national team when he triumphed at Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club in 2021.
“I don’t mind the pressure that comes with being the highest-ranked player in the field,” said the 22-year-old Sugiura, a Senior at Nihon University in Japan who is ranked 15th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR).
“I am OK with that. There is no pressure because of my ranking. But yes, being the senpai in the team is another matter. It’s a huge responsibility.”
Gareth Jones, Japan’s Golf Association’s National Coach, was full of praise for the seriousness with which Sugiura has accepted his new role.
“It’s not about telling the others how to do things or what to do. It’s more about doing the right things so that others around you can see and feel motivated by what you do,” said Jones.
“Sugiura has been fantastic in the role, which was handed over to him when Taiga Semikawa (who rose to WAGR No. 1 after Kanaya and Nakajima) turned professional. He takes his responsibilities very seriously. And like the players before him, he has a very good work ethic.
“He has developed tremendously as a player, especially after a very good result last year in the Japan Open. He now has a lot of self-belief in his own abilities.”
The Japan Open is universally acknowledged as one of the toughest tournaments in the world, with course conditions as tough as a USGA set-up of the US Open. Sugiura shot 4-under par and was tied for third, finishing ahead of Kanaya and Adam Scott.
Sugiura may have conquered the tough Sankoi Golf Club that week, but he is still weary of the test that lies ahead of him at the Royal Melbourne Golf Club.
“I have some experience of playing in the Melbourne area. I played the Australian Master of the Amateurs earlier this year at Southern Golf Club in Victoria. It is about 20 minutes away from Royal Melbourne and built in the same sandbelt style,” said Sugiura.
“But those courses are tough. The fairways and the greens are so firm, they are a challenge. I think I learned a lot from playing in Melbourne earlier this year.
“I haven’t played the Royal Melbourne Golf Club before, but I have a fairly good idea of what to expect. I think it is going to be a great test of everyone’s short game, which is good because I think that is the strength of my game.”
Sugiura started playing golf idolizing Tiger Woods, but soon had a new hero – Japan’s very own Hideki Matsuyama, a two-time AAC champion.
“I haven’t had the chance to interact much with Matsuyama san. But he is my hero. I’d love to achieve some of the things he has. And I’d love to play a practice round at Augusta National Golf Club with him,” said Sugiura, who played in the 2021 AAC in Dubai and was tied for 28th when Nakajima won the title.
“I have played a lot with Takumi and Keita. I want to win the AAC like them. It was so inspiring to be part of the AAC when Keita won. I have spoken to both, and they had similar advice for me – course management is the key. I need to think well and think positively during my rounds.”
Sugiura, already a winner this year in Abema Tour, the development series of Japan Golf Tour Organization (JGTO), is planning to turn professional soon. However, that will have to wait if he wins the beautiful Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship come Sunday.
“Playing the Masters and The Open at this time of my career is the chance of a lifetime. I hope I can win and play the majors. That will be a dream come true for me,” said Sugiura.