HONOLULU (AP) – Monday morning of this year’s first Japan Golf Tour event, there was no time to be anywhere but in front of a television.
It was here that Takumi Kanaya and Keita Nakajima could be found in Nagoya in April last year, each captivated by images of Hideki Matsuyama winning the Masters for becoming the first Japanese player in a green jacket.
“I simply watched the TV show and cheered on him at the hotel prior to the tournament I was playing in, and I was very inspired by his victory,” Kanaya said through an interpreter Tuesday at the Sony Open.
“No sleep,” Nakajima added in English with a smile. “Very excited.”
The week after Matsuyama became a Masters champion, Kanaya certainly played inspired golf. He won the Token Homemate Cup for his second title as a pro in just his sixth start on the Japan Golf Tour. Nakajima shoots wide.
Kanaya previously won in Japan when he was the No. 1 amateur in the world.
Nakajima was a second-grader in college when he finished second after Kanaya, and now he is the No. 1 amateur in the world. Nakajima also won the Japan Tour as an amateur at the Panasonic Open before conquering the Asia-Pacific Amateur.
Both are at the Sony Open this week on sponsorship exemptions, and both consider Matsuyama an important source of motivation.
“First and foremost, his game is exceptional, and not just me, but many of the Japanese players have been inspired to play well on American soil,” Kanaya said.
Matsuyama is also in the field in Waialae, a forerunner of when the three Japanese stars – all of whom have reached No. 1 in the amateur rankings and the Asia-Pacific amateur champions – meet again for the Augusta National in April for the Masters.
Nakajima got his place by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur.
Kanaya, who managed the cut at the Masters in 2019 as an amateur, earned a return trip to Augusta National by finishing 66th in the last Japan event last year to finish in third place, allowing him to move into the top 50 in world.
Their mentor, Matsuyama, is the Masters champion.
“Hopefully I will be a pioneer and many other Japanese will follow suit,” Matsuyama said as he won the Masters. “I’m happy to be able to open the locks, hopefully.”
Matsuyama’s influence began before he became a Masters champion. He has won a few World Golf Championship events in Ohio and Shanghai, among his seven PGA Tour victories remaining with eight titles on the Japan Golf Tour.
He chose to stay at Tohoku Fukushi University every four years to get his degree before becoming a professional, the path Kanaya followed.
Kanaya won the Taiheiyo Masters while in college and said, “Hideki told me I should win in professional tournaments. I’m so glad I can report good news.”
The ultimate destination is to play the PGA Tour, just like Matsuyama, and the Sony Open is a good option for Kanaya. He also plays Abu Dhabi and Dubai as part of the Middle East’s turn through the European tour, hoping to stay in the top 50 to get into more US events ahead of the Masters.
“When I was there and playing as an amateur, I was there simply for the experience,” Kanaya said. “But this year, when I play as a professional, the Masters will be a key event for me to get the ticket to the PGA Tour or European Tour.
Nakajima, who already has a strong building and a deep commitment, is nearing the end of his youth at Nippon Sports Science University. He is expected to become a professional after playing the Masters, US Open and British Open – he is exempt as the No. 1 amateur – and the World Amateur Team competition in France later this summer.
Nakajima prefers to speak English, although at times it is a struggle to find the right words, but it reflects the deep commitment he has to golf and where he believes he is headed. In the shower, he is known for practicing victory speeches in English.
He played 10 pro events in Japan last year, including his victory at the Panasonic Open and a draw number 28 in the Zozo Championship, a PGA Tour event that Matsuyama won.
Nakajima considers Matsuyama to be as big a star in Japan as Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels, American League MVP and AP Male Athlete of the Year.
“He’s a superstar in Japan,” Nakajima said. “I will, I will also catch up with Mr Hideki and Mr Takumi.”
The Sony Open is a good starting point for them so far.
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