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Emergence of Japanese stars creating new legacy on the DP World Tour

Emergence of Japanese stars creating new legacy on the DP World Tour

By Camilla Tait Robb

The recent emergence of young Japanese winners on the DP World Tour has the makings of a new legacy after a record-breaking seven months.

Yuto Katsuragawa-2150519462

Yuto Katsuragawa became the latest name to break through on the DP World Tour with his maiden title at the ISPS HANDA-CHAMPIONSHIP, continuing a history-making season for Japanese players.

It comes less than a month after Keita Nakajima earned his victory at the Hero Indian Open, and just 77 days after compatriot Rikuya Hoshino earned his own maiden title at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters.

It marks the first time in history that multiple Japanese players have earned victories in a single season on the DP World Tour, signifying just a small part of a seismic shift in Japanese successes on this stage - aided by the pathway from the Japan Golf Tour.

From a combination of raw talent trying to emulate Hideki Matsuyama and the success of other compatriots on Tour to a drive from inside Japan's coaching team to foster ambition and confidence to play overseas, the latest success stories have set about the foundations for a new wave of talent.

Until Matsuyama claimed his first of two World Golf Championships (2016 WGC-HSBC Champions, 2017 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational) and made history as the first Japanese male Major champion at the 2021 Masters, Isao Aoki had held court as the only player to have won a DP World Tour title for over 30 years.

Aoki, who has over 50 titles to his name on the Japan Golf Tour, had earned his sole victory at the 1983 Panasonic European Open, where he beat Seve Ballesteros, Sir Nick Faldo and Carl Mason by two strokes.

He was also the first player from Japan to win on the PGA TOUR, and has championed the progression of Japanese golfers for years in his role as head of the Japan Golf Tour.

While there have been others to win on the PGA TOUR, there was a noticeable gap in success stories on the DP World Tour over the past few decades. Many have come close: Masahiro Kawamura has three runner-up finishes to his name alone in the last six seasons, but none had been able to break that barrier.

Until now.

In the last seven months, there has been a dramatic transformation in that particular arena, starting with Ryo Hisatsune's victory at the Cazoo Open de France last September, followed by Rikuya Hoshino's win in Qatar, Nakajima's triumph in India and Katsuragawa triumph in Japan. Both Nakajima and Hoshino earned their DP World Tour cards through the pathway on the JGTO, and three of the four recent champions (Hisatsune, Hoshino, Nakajima) are currently ranked inside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking.


When Nakajima, the former World Number One Amateur for a record 87 weeks, was asked about the reason for this new surge of breakthrough Japanese stars, he put it down to an idolisation of Hideki Matsuyama.

"Hideki Matsuyama is a superstar, so every Japanese player wants to catch up to Hideki," Nakajima told the DP World Tour.

"That’s why Japanese players are playing well now."

But Gareth Jones, Head Coach of the Japanese Golf Association, says that while Matsuyama's success has been a huge factor, the most recent collection of champions have also given each other huge amounts of confidence through their individual successes. That is particularly true for Hoshino, who told the DP World Tour that Hisatsune's win "was a significant source of inspiration for me."

"I'm super proud of how so many of these boys are going, and the ones that have been brave enough to go overseas," said Jones, who has spent nine years in the role and watched over the progression of several of the young talented stars that are emerging.

"Certainly look at what Ryo Hisatsune did last year, he's had an amazing rise. I tried talking him out of turning pro sort of four years ago, he was 18 years old and he said "I'll think about it now, I'm turning pro" and you know more power to him. He's been phenomenal. And that's obviously given the other boys the confidence that they've all been in the same sort of classroom together and well if he can do, it I can too.

"You know they're all trying to catch Hideki of course, but I'm really pleased with their ambition and that's certainly what we're trying to help and promote."

Katsuragawa also admits that he drew inspiration from the recent success of his compatriots.

"Looking at them winning in Europe definitely motivated me," he said. "This tournament was held in Japan on a familiar course but I have not experienced winning abroad yet. I aim to win on a bigger stage internationally."

While it has taken slightly longer for a breakthrough on the male side of things, there has been no shortage of Japanese talent on the Major stage of the women's game: Hisako Higuchi was the first Japanese player (and Asian player), male or female, to win a Major when she triumphed at the 1977 LPGA Championship, while Ai Miyazoto topped the World Rankings three separate times in 2010, and Hinako Shibuno lifted the Women's British Open trophy in 2019.

Jones explained that it's been a similar thing within the National team too, that early success has belonged to the girls, only to be followed later by the boys, who they have often coached for a longer time.

"We've certainly through the national team had quite a bit of success. We were very good with our girls early on and the boys have taken a little bit longer. But I think that's a normal thing and they take a little longer to mature.

"And men's golf is very deep, so you know, our relationships with them have been a little bit longer. A player like Keita Nakajima, I've known him for eight years now, and they've sort of developed over time as they've matured and their bodies have matured."

In the men's professional game, it wasn't until Matsuyama set a whole new bar with a number of broken records that signified a real breakthrough for male golfers from Japan.

In 2021 he won the 2021 Masters Tournament, beating his own previous best finish of second at the 2017 U.S. Open and that of Isao Aoki, who also finished second at the same event 41 years prior. Matsuyama, who is currently the World Number 15 but has been ranked as high as second, was quick to reference his hope at the time that he could inspire a new generation with his success.

"I'm really happy," Matsuyama had said immediately after his Major triumph.

"Hopefully I'll be a pioneer and many other Japanese will follow. I'm glad to be able to open the floodgates, hopefully, and many more will follow me.

"It's thrilling to think that there are a lot of youngsters in Japan watching today. Hopefully in five, ten years, when they get a little older, hopefully some of them will be competing on the world stage.

"But I still have a lot of years left, so they are going to have to compete against me still. But I'm happy for them because hopefully they will be able to follow in my footsteps."

Just three years later and a goal realised, he was playing practice rounds with Hisatsune - now a dual member on both the DP World Tour and PGA TOUR - at Augusta National ahead of his countryman's debut at The Masters.


That moment in particular was a special one for Hisatsune, who wrote in his DP World Tour Player blog that Matsuyama had been one of his heroes growing up.

Yet it was his friend and fellow competitor Kawamura that he credits with contributing to his actual breakthrough victory on the DP World Tour, having helped him adjust to life on Tour and outside of Japan. With that foundation, Hisatsune flourished after making it through DP World Tour Qualifying School in 2022, going on to be voted the 2023 Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year and earn one of the ten PGA Tour cards available through his 17th place finish on the 2023 Race to Dubai Rankings in Partnership with Rolex.

"I owe a lot to Masahiro Kawamura and having him on Tour alongside me certainly contributed to my win," wrote the 21-year-old.

"He’s been kind enough to share his experiences and his knowledge about the courses that were new to me, as well as taking me to places with great food when we’re off course. I don’t think I would have been able to have as much fun playing golf on Tour if it weren’t for him.

"Visiting different countries around the world beats how tough playing an international schedule can be any day. I simply love to travel and enjoy exploring new countries."

Kawamura has been a source of encouragement for Hoshino too, helping him feel comfortable on Tour on his own route to a first DP World Tour title at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters.

"Kawamura has been a reassuring figure on the DP World Tour for many years, and it's incredibly encouraging to be able to engage in discussions about the tour with him," said Hoshino.

"Having fellow Japanese colleagues allows for mutual growth and camaraderie, and even in locations far away from Japan, the Tour becomes much more enjoyable through shared experiences like training together and eating out."

And it's that particular concept and ambition of travelling outside Japan to play and experience new cultures that Jones believes has been a big part of the breakthrough.

For him as the Head Coach, who comes from Australia, it's been a big focus over the past few years as they try to push players to compete outside of their home country and give them confidence by learning English.

"One reason for having an Australian coach or an English speaking coach is that we're trying to make them really engage in English.

"Watching Keita a couple of weeks ago and his interviews at the Indian Open, you know I thought he was phenomenal. He was there, there's no interpreter, there's no translator, and you're getting the real Keita. So you're starting to understand who these players are as the personality comes out when they speak in English.

"They're all inspired to keep going. And that's one of our things we say, just keep going but you know, they all practice hard. We know that it's a matter of making them aware of practising the right way and focus on their short games so they can be competitive all the time.

"I'd like to see more and more of them become brave enough to go overseas. Certainly the DP World Tour is a wonderful place to start and really carve out a great career."

And with four Japanese victories in seven months, this new generation of champions will only hope to inspire more players to try their hand overseas, and create a new legacy for future generations to aspire to.

According to Jones, it's already happening.

"I think these young guys that we've got at the moment have been quite inspirational to golfers in Japan. People in general are getting interested in what we're doing a little bit because they're trying to play overseas and a little bit of success here and there has certainly spiked up a bit of interest."

Japanese winners on the DP World Tour

Isao Aoki | 1983 Panasonic European Open

Hideki Matsuyama | 2016 WGC-HSBC Champions

Hideki Matsuyama | 2017 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational

Hideki Matsuyama | 2021 Masters Tournament

Ryo Hisatsune | 2023 Cazoo Open de France

Rikuya Hoshino | 2024 Commercial Bank Qatar Masters

Keita Nakajima | 2024 Hero Indian Open

Yuto Katsuragawa | 2024 ISPS HANDA - CHAMPIONSHIP