Golf: S'pore's Hiroshi Tai sets course for golfing stardom

SINGAPORE – Starry-eyed Hiroshi Tai was only a gap-wedge distance away from star-wannabe Hideki Matsuyama.

Then only nine, the eager youngster was among the gallery that followed Matsuyama on a cloudy October day in his defence of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship title at the Singapore Island County Club’s (SICC) new course in 2011.

The Japanese ace fulfilled his ambition with a one-stroke victory over South Korea’s Lee Soo-min with a superb five-under 67 that allowed him to make a majestic march in white-and-yellow attire to the presentation ceremony.

But the excited half-Japanese Singaporean left the course with one regret: one that became starker early this month when he watched Matsuyama beat a world-class field to claim the Masters title at Augusta, Georgia.

Missing the golden opportunity of taking a picture with Matsuyama when the enthusiastic youngster accompanied his golfing parents, Jacky and Yukiko, in the bunch that followed the Japanese champion was thoroughly disappointing.

Especially in the light of Matsuyama’s recent Masters triumph. “It was a bad miss, but I am hoping for another opportunity with the champion,” sighed Hiroshi, 19, who is touted by the Singapore Golf Association (SGA) to be “among the top players to do well on the international scene in the near future”.

It is not an empty boast. Because natural ability and talent aside, Hiroshi enjoys a golfing environment that is conducive for the making of a champion.

Singaporean dad Jacky (handicap index 14), who works in the financial sector and had introduced him to the game when he was only four, and Japanese mum Yukiko (handicap index eight) who acts as his chaperone and also conscientiously monitors his progress, are zealous golfers themselves, often seen at the SICC.

Sister Yoko, 17, who is studying in Florida and is a national player, gives him unwavering support, as does the SGA.

Born in Hongkong, having studied in Singapore, Shanghai and Florida, Hiroshi has played in many countries to garner enough experience and independence to fend for himself.

An unfortunate fall following a slip three years ago in Florida saw him suffer a left ankle injury that kept him sidelined for 10 weeks. Now he is raring to get back into the thick of action after removing the plate and eight screws from his ankle.

Helping him on the road to complete recovery while serving his last few months in national service (NS) are national coach Matt Ballard and SGA high performance manager Joshua Ho who believe that NS has also helped him manage his time and priorities.

Hiroshi has targeted the SEA Games because he wants to make amends for his defeat in the team final against Thailand in 2019 that cost Singapore the gold medal. This setback came after he had sealed Singapore’s entry into the final with a play-off victory following a 10-foot birdie putt against Indonesia in the semi-finals in the Philippines.

With a consistent average drive of 320 yards laced with great ball striking and decent putting, the 1.8-metre tall golfer is someone Singapore can count on in the future, especially as he is enrolling in golf-mad Georgia Tech University in the United States next year.

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Hiroshi, who has bagged two aces (in Shanghai and San Jose, California) in his career, idolises Tiger Woods for the manner in which he revolutionised golf and admires Justin Thomas for his distance-hitting, despite being small-built.

“But being half-Japanese, I must say that Matsuyama, quiet and humble, is my current hero who possesses a great all-round game matched by sound temperament”, he said.

And Hiroshi’s hope is that like Matsuyama, who lifted his game several rungs up by making the US his home after the Asia-Pacific victory in Singapore, his own game will improve after his four-year Georgia Tech stint.

For that goal, he already has a solid platform from which to launch heroics for Singapore.

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