Matsuyama (left) and Kiradech are among Asia’s leading stars looking for a solid 2021. Pics: Getty Images
As the PGA TOUR begins a new calendar year in 2021, starting with this week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, Asia’s leading stars are unlikely to emerge from their winter hibernation with added muscles like how Bryson DeChambeau showed up last June.
Unless you’re Bryson DeChambeau, the old adage “Drive for Show and Putt for Dough” has for a long time been an essence in golf’s wisdom where the difference between success or despair may be a matter of inches instead of yards.
How quickly a player gets his ball into the hole often makes the vital difference between winning or losing in a sport where only one golfer from a typical starting field of 144 will emerge victorious each week on the PGA TOUR.
Of course DeChambeau has rocked the golf world with his Popeye-like forearms and power-packed swing enabling him to launch ball after ball into oblivion in recent times. The American was ranked as the TOUR’s longest driver in 2020 with an average 322 yards off the tee and currently leads the 2020-21 season with an eye-popping 337 yards.
Interestingly, a 428-yard drive by DeChambeau at the Travelers Championship last June – he did have a bit of help when his ball rolled on a cart path for a good 100 yards – has been recorded as the longest drive on TOUR. But thankfully for the rest of the field, while DeChambeau did put on a show, it was Dustin Johnson who ran off with the dough that week. It was Johnson’s first of three wins in 2020 which helped him become the new FedExCup champion, earning a whopping US$15 million along the way.
Distance and power is vital in today’s modern game and the 27-year-old DeChambeau, who has used science, lots protein shakes and massive chunks of steaks to great effect, has reaped the fruit of his hard work by adding two more titles in 2020 to his career haul of seven PGA TOUR wins.
The Asians will do well to remember golf’s most famous catchphrase where the flatstick remains as one of the most important tools in their golf bag.
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, for one, will be fired up to end a more than three-year winless streak that dates back to the 2017 World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. Matsuyama, who turns 29 in February, is widely regarded as one of the purest ball strikers in the game and has the stats to back him up. He has consistently ranked high up in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green stat and Approach the Green stat over the years, finishing second and fifth on the lists last season.
Alarmingly though, Matsuyama’s Strokes Gained: Putting stat saw him ranked a lowly 170th, where as he currently lies in 158th position in the on-going 2020-21 season. CBS golf analyst Nick Faldo, a six-time major winner, is one who has noticed Matsuyama’s uneasiness with the putter.
By no means though has Matsuyama languished in the game. He still finished a high 15th in the 2020 FedExCup final standings and qualified for his seventh successive 30-man field TOUR Championship. But once he figures out his putter, it would be unthinkable to imagine what damage he can do in 2021.
Korea’s Byeong Hun An is another player keen to finally secure a breakthrough victory on the PGA TOUR. Like Matsuyama, the former U.S. Amateur champion is a magnificent ball-striker but is often frustrated by a misbehaving putter. He hooked up last year with Brad Faxon, an eight-time PGA TOUR winner, to improve his putting fortunes and ended last season ranked 40th in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green, 14th for Around the Green and a modest 176th in Putting.
An said: “There are a few things we’re working on, more of a visual, green readings and trying to get better at those. To be fair, not much technique … changed my routine a little bit. It’s so simple I changed it within like four, five days.,” said the Korean, who still finished a career best 33rd in the 2020 FedExCup rankings despite the lack of sharpness with his putting.
Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan, a one-time PGA TOUR winner, often relies on his short game to propel him up the leaderboards and showed deft touches with an impressive tied seventh finish in his Masters Tournament debut in November. A relatively short hitter – he averaged 287 yards last season to be ranked 167th on TOUR – Pan knows his short game is vital to keep up with the big boys and improved from being 188th in Strokes Gained: Putting last season to his current 79th ranking.
“It feels great. I struggled the whole year, so this is definitely a big step up for me and a big confidence boost,” said Pan after his Masters top-10, which earned him a quick return to Augusta National in April.
Like An, India’s Anirban Lahiri and Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand are tipped to challenge for a first PGA TOUR win this year. Playing in his sixth straight season in the U.S., Lahiri has put behind some poor form which has dogged him over the past two years. During golf’s shutdown due to Covid-19, he rebuilt his game with long-time coach Vijay Divecha and was rewarded with a first top-10 since 2018 at the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship, followed by a T11 at the Bermuda Championship.
“It’s all about building that momentum going forward, build on that confidence and belief and snowball it into getting into contention more often, and try to work for a ‘W’. I have to think that way,” said Lahiri.
While big-hitting Kiradech may not be as long and powerful as DeChambeau, like all top Thai golfers, he is blessed with soft-hands and great touch around the greens and once he gets back to full fitness, he may well breakthrough in his third season on TOUR.
Note: Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, International Marketing and Communications, APAC for the PGA TOUR and is based in Kuala Lumpur.