Golf: Matsuyama's Masters win, Tokyo Games can spur game's revival in Japan, says Shibuno

SINGAPORE – Hideki Matsuyama’s historic win at the Masters and Tokyo’s hosting of the Olympic Games in under three months could be the catalyst for a major revival of golf in the country, Japanese star Hinako Shibuno said on Wednesday (April 28).

Like the rest of her compatriots – more than half of the televisions in Japan were tuned to the live broadcast of Matsuyama’s victory at 8am on a Monday morning earlier this month – Shibuno was glued to her screen and enthralled.

The 22-year-old, a Major champion herself after her triumph at the 2019 British Open, said: “Hideki has made a very big, huge influence to everybody. What he did will make golf in Japan bigger and bigger and that’s really good for our sport.”

Golf in Japan has, after all, been stuck in neutral for the last decade after the boom in the 1970s, matching the country’s roaring economy.

With more than 2,000 courses, Japan accounts for half of the continent’s golf courses but has seen its number of golfers decrease by almost half, from about 12 million in the 1990s to around 6.5 million currently.

Interestingly, Japan still generates about US$2 billion (S$2.65 billion) annually in golf gear sales, which is about a fifth of the global total and second only to the United States (about 45 per cent), noted a joint research project by Golf Datatech and the Yano Research Institute in Japan.

Despite the capital being placed under its third coronavirus state of emergency last Friday, plans to stage the Summer Games appear on track. Several of the game’s biggest names like Park In-bee and Lydia Ko, who alongside Shibuno are in Singapore for this week’s HSBC Women’s World Championship, have indicated their willingness to travel and compete at the Kasumigaseki Country Club outside Tokyo in July.

Reigning Olympic champion Park of South Korea said: “There are lots of people who are still very worried but from an athlete’s point of view, I just think it’s great the Olympics is happening. We’ve been waiting for it for four years, and it has been five years now.”

New Zealand’s Ko, who took home the silver medal at Rio 2016, added: “I believe the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and everybody involved alongside Japan are going to make the right decisions leading up to it.

“I know that if healthy and safety were going to be in jeopardy, I’m sure they won’t follow through with it.”

Shibuno said that many Japanese athletes like her were hopeful the Olympics would proceed. “We have waited a long time for it and we want it to be in Tokyo, but we know the situation right now is hard.”

Her immediate focus though, is to rediscover her winning form. Aside from that British Open win, she captured four titles on the LPGA of Japan Tour in 2019 but drew a blank last season.

The world No. 21 said: “The greens here at Sentosa are tough. My target is not to make a single three-putt this week and hopefully shoot four under-par rounds.”

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