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Golf-daft Japan might be about to watch their rising son claim a first major title

THE Far East - and by that I mean Japan, not Tranent - has always intrigued and enticed.

Hideki Matsuyama  celebrates after winning the Memorial Tournament in a play-off. Picture: PA
Hideki Matsuyama celebrates after winning the Memorial Tournament in a play-off. Picture: PA

Where else, for instance, could you find a toilet so technologically advanced it automatically raises and lowers the seat the moment the sensors detect your shuffling, fidgeting presence in the cubicle? In Tranent, meanwhile, they are still muddling on with the cutting edge complexities of the chamber pot.

Yes, Japan remains a promised land for a variety of gee-whiz gizmos and gadgets. Oh, and you can lob golfers in to that equation too.

There was a time when the thought of a Japanese player winning a men's major championship was as unfathomable as a toilet bowl with a heated seat and an in-built speaker system that blasts out the Ride of the Valkyries as your stint spent nestled in its hi-tech embrace builds to a rousing conclusion.

These days, the hopes continue to rise in the Land of the Rising Sun. Hideki Matsuyama is Japan's latest son on the rise. A little more than a week ago, the 22-year-old made a significant breakthrough on the PGA Tour when he captured Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament and earned his first victory on the US circuit. "I think you've just seen the start of what's going to be truly one of the world's great players," said Nicklaus afterwards. Coming from an 18-time major champion, it was a ringing endorsement.

In this game, where there is always a rush to judgment, we are constantly looking for 'the next big thing'. Matsuyama is certainly big in Japan but he is rapidly emerging as a global force. This week's US Open at Pinehurst will provide another opportunity for an increasingly golf-obsessed Japan to salute a first male major champion.

Ever since the double act of Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono beat the celebrated American pair of Jimmy Demaret and Sam Snead to win the 1957 Canada Cup - the forerunner to the World Cup - the Royal & Ancient pursuit has been growing and growing in this neck of the woods.

The likes of Jumbo Ozaki, Tommy Nakajimi and Isao Aoki became well-kent faces on the scene during the 1970s and 1980s as they reeled off a series of top-10 finishes in major championships before Shigeki Maruyama and Ryuji Imada both went on to score PGA Tour wins in the 'noughties'. On the women's front, the trail-blazing Chako Higuchi became Japan's first, and as yet only, major winner when she landed the LPGA Championship in 1977 and was given a ticker-tape parade in Tokyo.

If Matsuyama knocks it off at Pinehurst, they might give him the keys to the Golden Pavilion. Whether it happens this week or next year is in the lap of the golfing gods, of course, but Matsuyama is certainly a major player with ambitions higher than Mount Fuji.

As the winner of the Asian Amateur Championship in 2010, he went on to finish tied 27th in the following year's Masters and claim the prize and the plaudits as the leading amateur. Since he turned professional in 2013, his progress has been eye-opening and eye-catching.

He was 10th in last year's US Open, sixth in the Open and 19th in the US PGA Championship. For a rookie, that is a mightily impressive body of work. By the end of the year, Matsuyama, with four wins on the Japan Tour in 2013, was the Far East circuit's rookie of the year and had rocketed to No.23 in the world.

Being a young, up-and-coming prospect, with the weight of a nation's expectations lumped on to the shoulders, does not come easy, though, and Matsuyama only needs to look at the fluctuating fortunes of his countryman, Ryo Ishikawa, for cautionary tales.

At the age of just 15 in 2007, he became the youngest winner on a major men's tour when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup on his native circuit. Ishikawa attracted the kind of shrieking attention not seen since The Beatles were in their pomp and went on to rack up a series of Japan Tour wins when he turned pro at 16. He played in the Masters at 17 and the Presidents' Cup at 18.

Last year, as Matsuyama flourished, Ishikawa lost his PGA Tour card, although he did regain it through the Web.com Tour Finals. Now that Matsuyama has assumed the role of the high-profile heir to the throne, Ishikawa, who is known as The Bashful Prince, may be quite content to take a back seat and quietly work away.

Excitement is building ahead of the second major of the season over a re-modeled, stripped-back Pinehurst No.2 course that will also host the US Women's Open next week. Will the in-form bookies' favourite Rory McIlroy, who swept to an eight-shot win in the 2011 US Open, conquer again and claim a third major title? Can Phil Mickelson put the controversy of the 'insider trading' investigation behind him and finally break his US Open duck after six runners-up finishes in the event since 1999? Could Matsuyama upset the world order and fulfil his eastern promise? And what about the logistical problems of back-to-back majors should the event have its traditional 18-hole play-off on Monday, thus robbing the good ladies of an extra day of practice?

There will be plenty to mull over . . . rather like flicking through a newspaper while perched on one of those fancy Japanese toilets.

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