Team Japan rising to favourites at ISPS HANDA World Cup of Golf

Hideki Matsuyama of Japan (Photo by Paul Lakatos/Asian Tour)

Hideki Matsuyama (Photo by Paul Lakatos/Asian Tour)

When thinking about the field for this year’s World Cup, the team of Hideki Matsuyama and Ryo Ishikawa is quickly rising to one of the favourites when the event heads to Kingston Heath Golf Club in November.

Matsuyama and Ishikawa, both 25 years or younger, are both widely popular in their home country of Japan. While Matsuyama is playing better than possibly any player in the world over the last several weeks, his partner is currently working his way back from injury.

If you haven’t been paying attention to the golf scene over the last few weeks, then you would probably answer the following question incorrectly – Who is the highest-ranked player in the field for the World Cup of Golf?

Adam Scott? Nope, the defending champion and 13-time PGA TOUR winner doesn’t top the current charts.

Rickie Fowler? Despite his success in 2016 and helping lead the U.S. Ryder Cup team to victory, Fowler is not the answer.

Danny Willett or Jimmy Walker? Even winning a major championship in 2016 doesn’t get a player as high as Matsuyama.

Thanks to stellar play during the 2015-2016 PGA TOUR season that included his playoff victory over Rickie Fowler at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, combined with a sizzling start to the 2016-2017 campaign that has included a runner-up finish at his first start at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia as well as his third PGA TOUR victory at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions where he became the first player from Asia to win a World Golf Championships event and add his win at the Japan Golf Tour’s Japan Open to start the month of October, and you can see why it’s 24-year-old Hideki Matsuyama who tops the field at No. 6 in the current Official World Golf Ranking.

He finished 5th at the season-ending TOUR Championship to finish the season at a career-best No. 13 in the FedExCup standings. From there, he won the Japan Open for his sixth victory on the Japan Golf Tour.

Matsuyama didn’t just win the HSBC Champions in China, he lapped the field. His seven-stroke win marked the largest in tournament history.

“I was surprised when they announced that I was the first Asian to win a World Golf Championships event,” Matsuyama said after his victory. “Winning today, I feel has got me closer to being able to compete a lot better in the major tournaments, and so my next goal is, of course, to win a major, and I’m going to do all that I can to prepare well for that. It’s a great victory for me and hopefully this will be a good victory and a great victory for Japan and encourage others to play golf.”

Before setting his sights on major championships in 2017, however, Matsuyama is excited to team with Ishikawa in the World Cup of Golf.

“I’m really looking forward to the World Cup of Golf. Anytime you get the opportunity to represent your country, it is a great honour. I’m looking forward to playing well and hopefully we can team together for a victory,” Matsuyama said.

However, it’s been a frustrating year his playing partner, Ishikawa, a 14-time Japan Golf Tour winner, who has had to take a break for five months due to a back injury.

It was the longest Ishikawa has spent away from the game, but it was never far from his mind.

“I suffered my back injury (lumber discopathy) at Pebble Beach in February,” said Ishikawa, who was forced to rest for multiple months and undergo rehab after realizing his injury was worse than expected. “The first couple of months, there was no golf which was funny for me. It’s the first time I had to stop playing golf, as golf is my life. I just read books and hung out with my family and wife. We travelled around Tokyo, far away from golf, but I was thinking about it all the time.”

The 25-year-old returned to the PGA TOUR in July, but struggled in competition until his long-time friend, Matsuyama, selected him to represent Japan in the World Cup of Golf.

“I returned in July after five months,” Ishikawa said. “I missed the cut by very far in my first event back. Hideki picked me as his partner for the World Cup in August which caught me by surprise. I was still working on my back injury.”

Two weeks after being selected to play in the World Cup of Golf, he won the RIZAP KBC Augusta by an impressive five shots.

Ishikawa arrives in Melbourne as one of the most decorated players in the field, with 14 victories on the Japan Golf Tour. He reached a career-high 29th in the Official World Golf Ranking when he won five times in 2009.

“[Matsuyama’s] decision to pick me was a big honour,” he said “Also, it’s an honour for me to represent Japan. It means a lot for Japanese golf and also for the both of us to play in the World Cup. I’ve known Hideki for over 10 years now, so we’re long-time friends and it’s going to be great to play with him.”

While it was a surprise selection for Ishikawa, Matsuyama was never in doubt as to who his partner would be.

Ishikawa brings World Cup of Golf experience to the team after debuting in the event three years ago, finishing in a tie for third place. Meanwhile, Matsuyama will represent Japan for the first time in the event.

“Right from the start, I was hoping Ryo would be recovered from his injury and able to play,” said Matsuyama, who recently won the Japan Open. “There was no second choice; I am looking forward to playing with him.”

Matsuyama and Ishikawa pose a formidable partnership, combining for 22 victories worldwide. The duo is hoping their skills will complement each other well in hopes of winning Japan’s third World Cup of Golf title, and their first since Toshimitsu Izawa and Shigeki Maruyama claimed the trophy in 2002.

“We probably should be a good pair because our games are so vastly different, so hopefully we will do well,” Matsuyama said.

“Hideki plays totally different from the way I do,” added Ishikawa “His ball striking is awesome, whether it’s the driver, which he always keeps on the fairway, and his irons are always perfect. “He’s a much better player in the long game. However, my short game is my strong point, so it could be a good combination.”

With Ishikawa back in the winner’s circle, Matsuyama remaining a consistent commodity on the PGA TOUR and Japan preparing to host the 2020 Olympic Games, which will again feature golf, Japanese golf fans are eagerly anticipating their nation’s involvement in the World Cup of Golf.

“Izawa and Maruyama inspired me when they also won the World Cup” Ishikawa said. “Japanese golf fans are excited to see Hideki and I team up, and we look forward to trying to win the World Cup against some of the strong teams like Australia and the United States.”

The ISPS HANDA World Cup of Golf web-site is http://www.pgatour.com/tournaments/world-cup-of-golf/field.html.

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