The National Times - Matsuyama in race for fitness ahead of Masters title defense

Matsuyama in race for fitness ahead of Masters title defense

Matsuyama in race for fitness ahead of Masters title defense
Matsuyama in race for fitness ahead of Masters title defense

Hideki Matsuyama is in a race for fitness as he prepares to defend his historic Masters title at Augusta National Golf Club.

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Matsuyama became the first Japanese man to win a major golf title and the first Asian-born golfer to don the green jacket last year, but arrived at the iconic course in Georgia nursing a neck injury that caused him to pull out of the Texas Open midway through the second round last week.

The world number 12 said he suffered the injury on the way to a tie for 20th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in early March.

"Last couple of weeks have been a struggle," he admitted Tuesday as he prepared to launch his title defense -- and host the traditional Champions Dinner on Tuesday night.

"Hopefully I can find my game and be a worthy defending champion.

"I had a lot of treatment last week, though, at Valero Texas Open. Monday and Tuesday, I was pain free, feeling really good. Then woke up Wednesday morning, and the neck was stiff again.

"But I've had, again, a lot of treatment the last couple of days. I just came from the practice range and really felt good. It's probably the best I felt in a long time.

"So I'm looking forward to Thursday, and hopefully I'll be 100% percent by then."

Matsuyama had enjoyed a successful start to the 2021-22 season, winning the Zozo Championship late last year before a dramatic playoff victory at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January.

While his first major title brought a host of perks, such as meeting the prime minister of Japan, Matsuyama said the biggest lingering thrill was simply being announced on the first tee of every tournament as the reigning Masters champion.

"That was a highlight that I was able to relive almost every week that I played," he said.

"Last week in Texas, it was a little sad because I knew that was going to be the last time that I was going to be announced as the defending Masters champion.

"It kind of made me feel, hey, I need to go out and win it again so I can continue that highlight."

But his injury has limited his preparation, and it's unclear just how likely it is he will contend to become just the fourth player to win back-to-back Masters titles after Jack Nicklaus in 1965-66, Nick Faldo in 1989-90 and Tiger Woods in 2001-02.

"As far as golf, besides the injury, I haven't really been able to hit a full shot, a 100% full shot, in a long time, so that's still a question," he said.

"But I feel like the treatment I've been receiving is helping."