Matsuyama tries to recapture form of magic run at Masters

Jim SLATER
Hideki Matsuyama of Japan plays his shot from the 12th tee at Augusta National Golf Club on April 4, 2017

Fourth-ranked Hideki Matsuyama will try to become Japan's first male major golf champion by winning this week's Masters, but admits his form has cooled from a sizzling late-2016 run.

The 25-year-old Asian number one ended last year with wins at the Japan Open, the World Golf Championships event in Shanghai, the Taiheiyo Masters in Japan and the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.

And while he also managed to defend his PGA Phoenix Open crown in February, Matsuyama says he has not been able to recapture the magic he enjoyed just a few months ago.

"Compared to last November and December, my game isn't at that same level right now," Matsuyama said Tuesday. "I've been working hard and seeing some improvement. That's one of the reasons I'm really looking forward to this week, to see how my game stands up."

In some ways, Matsuyama said, he has been working too much on his approaches and chips at the expense of his longer shots.

"I've been working on my short game a lot, almost too much, because my longer shots, iron shots, drivers, have suffered a bit," Matsuyama said. "And because of that, I've gone back to the full swing now and working a lot more on that than I have been."

Matsuyama, who was fifth in the 2015 Masters and shared seventh last year, comes off his best major finish, a share of fourth, at last year's PGA Championship.

"I'm really not hitting it as well as I would like, so whether or not my confidence level is where it should be, I'm not sure," Matusyama said.

"But one thing I am looking forward to is for the bells to ring on Thursday and see how I do. I hope I can play a lot better than I have been the last couple weeks."

Matsuyama will tee off Thursday morning alongside eighth-ranked American Rickie Fowler and Scotland's Russell Knox

"I'm really looking forward to this week. This is the first major of the year and I've put a lot of energy, a lot of work into preparing for this week, and hopefully on Sunday, when I walk off the 18th green, I can be satisfied with how I played."

- Masters special in Japan -

Matsuyama has learned more about Augusta National with every year he has tried to capture the green jacket symbolic of Masters supremacy.

"Every year you play the course, you learn a little more, especially where not to hit it. That has been one of the keys, playing five times before, that I've been able to learn and to understand," he said.

"Last two years, I didn't hit it that well but I was able to get it in the hole. I guess course management is what has really helped me. Even though I'm not hitting it well, I can still hit it around OK."

Matsuyama's earliest memory of the Masters came 20 years ago when he watched Tiger Woods roll to victory by shooting an Augusta National course record.

"I was five, so I didn't know much about golf, but he sure looked good in that red shirt and black pants. I mean, I can still see it," Matusyama said. "The one thing I remember about Tiger's play was how far he hit it."

Matusyama said the Masters has a special place in the hearts of Japanese fans because it has global stars and familiar holes, being the only major played on the same layout every year.

"Japanese golf fans and TV viewers are familiar with the course and so for them, it's a lot easier to turn the TV on and know what's going on," Matsuyama said.

"They see all the great players from around the world. And in that sense, it's a special tournament among all the majors."