GURUGRAM, INDIA | Kazuki Higa stands just over 5 feet 2 inches. He is easy to miss on a crowded driving range. But that also could be because he seldom looks around, stays focused, speaks little except to his caddie and the interpreter, Maiko, who assures him that she is right there should he need anything.
But mention the word “Masters” and he turns around and gives a big smile. Then words start flowing rapidly, albeit in Japanese.
Higa set the Japan Golf Tour Organization alight by winning four times in 2022 and topping the Order of Merit to earn a 2023 card on the DP World Tour. He also finished the year inside the top 70 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
“There are very high expectations on the DP World Tour,” he said through his interpreter. “I’m enjoying the tour, and I hope I can play good golf and have a chance to win a tournament.”
Higa tied for fourth here Sunday at the Hero Indian Open as Germany’s Marcel Siem ended an 8½-year title drought.
Last month, Higa, a 27-year-old Okinawan, received a major boost in the form of a special invitation from Fred Ridley, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament, to play the year’s first major championship. Through his interpreter, he said that he was home when he got the communication and it took some time for him to digest it. Playing the Masters will be a “dream of dreams.” Higa was ranked 68th at the end of 2022, but he had dominated the Japan Tour, and that earned him a special invitation to Augusta National.
“Everybody wants to play Masters, so I wanted to get there,” he said.
Higa recalled going to the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in Incheon, South Korea, in 2016. His aim was to win the tournament because the winner’s prize included a start at the Masters. Countryman Hideki Matsuyama had won the Asia-Pacific Amateur twice – in 2010 and 2011 – to earn his place into the Masters.
At the 2016 AAC, Higa dropped from being in contention after three rounds into a T10 as he faltered with a final-round 78 at Jack Nicklaus Golf Club. The Masters remained a distant dream.
“It was one of the proudest moments for Japanese golf.”
Three years later, his first main Japan Tour win came at a tournament ironically called the RIZAP KBC Augusta, an event that has been played since 1973, and is sponsored by Kyushu Asahi Broadcasting Company, which broadcasts a lot of golf tournaments. So, the Masters was back on his mind.
After the 2020 season was severely curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Higa was getting ready for the start of the new 2021 season on the JGTO when the Masters was played in the usual second week of April.
He was at home and, like countless other golfers around the world, was watching Matsuyama make a bid for the green jacket. When Matsuyama was playing his last few holes, Higa concedes that he was extremely tense and restless and excited at the same time.
“I was very tense and excited during the closing stages of the final round,” he said. Through his interpreter, he tried to tell me that Matsuyama’s bogeys in the closing stages made Higa nervous.
Matsuyama, who at one stage led by five shots, dropped three bogeys in the last four holes for a 73, but he managed to hang in and win by one stroke over Will Zalatoris and become Japan’s first Masters champion.
“It was one of the proudest moments for Japanese golf,” said Higa, who conceded that the moment strengthened his determination to go to the Masters.
Now two years later, he will get a chance to tee up at Augusta.
“I am very happy about the opportunity, but it is also a big responsibility,” he said. “ It is not like any other tournament. I must play good golf because I am representing my country.”
Higa started his journey in golf at age 10. In a country with a strong history of amateur golf, Higa did make the national team but was also among the top-ranked players. He attended Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai, which has produced most of the famous Japanese golfers, including Matsuyama.
“The university has a great environment for golf,” Higa said. “There are very good coaches, and we were taught all skills. When we traveled, we had officials teaching us and helping us even outside the golf course.”
After turning pro in 2017, Higa played on the Japan Challenge Tour and the Asian Development Tour. He won the 2018 BTI Open in Bangladesh on the ADT in an event that was co-sanctioned by the Professional Golf Tour of India.
The same year, he won on the Japan Challenge Tour and divided his time between various tours, notably the Japan, Asian and the ADT. He won a second ADT title in 2019 before claiming his first Japan Tour title later in the year.
Higa added another title in 2021, but he hit it big one year later with four victories in about seven months and surged to the season money title. Just as the season was coming to an end, Higa won the Dunlop Phoenix against a field that featured a number of PGA Tour players, including Korean sensation Tom Kim.
Just as his small steps had become bigger with each victory, Higa got a massive boost in early December. The DP World Tour and PGA Tour announced an alliance with some international tours, including Japan, and that the JGTO’s Order of Merit winner would get a card to the DP World Tour.
So, when 2023 began, Higa found himself on the DP World Tour. He has posted three consecutive strong results: T13 at the Asian Tour’s International Series Oman, T11 at the DP World Tour’s Thailand Classic and the T4 in India.
Though Higa is only four years younger than Matsuyama, he concedes that the major champion is something of an idol for him. Both share an alma mater in Tohoku and a manager in Bob Turner of Turner Communications International, who acts as an interpreter for Matsuyama.
Higa is looking at the DP World Tour for eventual passage onto the PGA Tour, where he would join Matsuyama. Under the expanded strategic alliance between DP World Tour and the PGA Tour, 10 top players on the former European Tour will get a card to the U.S. circuit.
Last week in India, Higa struggled with a first-round 75 at DLF Golf near New Delhi but rebounded with a bogey-free 6-under 66 in the second round and found himself tied for seventh after a third-round 71. On the final day, he was 4-under through four holes but failed to maintain that momentum and signed for a 4-under 68 and share of fourth place. Yet after a T36 in Ras Al Khaimah to start the month and a T11 in Thailand, Higa gained a lot of confidence during the past week as he aims for the Masters.
At the Hero Indian Open, Higa haltingly explained that he took time to settle down at a difficult golf course. One hole, the par-4 11th, cost him four shots during the week. He finished six strokes back but thought that he should have been better.
Yet, he is staying focused in his bid to finish among the 10 players this season who get to punch tickets to America.
“That is the plan,” he said in a rare sentence uttered in English before giving a thumbs-up to the salutation, “See you in Augusta.”
Top: At just over 5 feet 2 inches, Kazuki Higa craves the big time.
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