US Masters golf 2021 - How Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama became Japan’s Olympic golden boy
Hideki Matsuyama's rousing victory at the 85th US Masters ends Japan's arduous and exacting wait for a men's major champion stretching back to the advent of the modern golf calendar in the 1940s. Matsuyama will be heralded as a national hero in Japan with his success all the more timely coming in the same year as capital city Tokyo is due to host the delayed 2020 Olympic Games in July and August.
Japanese golfer Hideki Matsuyama celebrates with the champion's green jacket after winning the Masters Tournament on 11 April, 2021, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia.
For a lad who shares the same handle as his home town in Japan, Hideki Matsuyama probably didn’t imagine the entire country would recognise him as a household name before he turned 30. Or after he hit 30 on the back nine of Augusta National.
The hard-hitting yet humble Hideki, a fabulously historic and pioneering champion of the 85th US Masters at the age of 29, is suddenly as famous as Matsuyama, the city of his birth on the island of Shikoku. Which is quite a thing. Sporting success on a global scale continues to move mountains away from Fuji.
“It was really wonderful,” said Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
As the coronavirus drags on, his achievement moved our hearts and gave us courage.
Every Olympic host nation holds out for a hero or two on which to hang their hopes, a figure who embodies a sense of collective national spirit and identity, but perhaps especially so when a country is fighting harder than Muhammad Ali in Manila to keep the show on the road.
Amid the global wrecking ball of the coronavirus pandemic that forced Tokyo 2020 to become Tokyo 2021, it is difficult to discover any relevant conciliatory note of silver or gold, but Matsuyama’s march to his maiden major title on Sunday night provided a quantum of solace as Japan tries to plot a route back into the light via the showcase of sporting excellence.
Yasuhiko Abe, who coached golfer Hideki Matsuyama during his Tohoku Fukushi University years, holds special editions of newspapers featuring Matsuyama's Masters victory as he speaks at a press conference in Sendai, northeastern Japan, on 12 April, 2021.
Image credit: Eurosport
The man with the golden pause at the top of his backswing did more than become Japan's first winner of a men's major golf title and the first Asian player to don the fabled Green Jacket in Georgia. He unwittingly became the poster boy for this summer’s delayed Olympic Games, due to be held between July 23 and August 8.
Even if Hideki is no adorer of publicity – he prospered by playing video games on his phone to relax at Augusta without local media tailgating his golf game due to current travel restrictions – the world number 25, who will soon move up to 14 in the rankings, richly deserves such adulation for earning the Green Jacket under the most sternest of sporting stress tests.
I am the first to win a major. If that’s the bar, I’ve set it. It’s thrilling to think a lot of youngsters in Japan are watching today.
For a brief moment on the par-five 15th hole on Sunday, he appeared to take leave of his senses when he fizzed a long iron yards long with his second shot. The layup with his second shot was the order of the day holding a four-shot lead over playing partner Xander Schauffele with four to play, but he opted for a mind-boggling manoeuvre that even the swashbuckling Arnold Palmer wouldn’t have attempted in his pomp.
The groans were palpable on the Japanese broadcast with pundit and national golfing treasure Tsuneyuki 'Tommy' Nakajima, the former world number four, probably suffering some sort of nightmarish déjà vu from 1978 when the ball hopped and skipped into the pond behind the green.
Nakajima once ran up the highest score on a single hole in the second round of the Masters 43 years ago when he became the first man in major history to suffer a 13 in competition, his calamity coming on the par-five 13th hole at Augusta in missing the cut. The former Japanese PGA champion suffered all sorts of misfortune, including dropping a wedge in Rae’s Creek and duffing several approach shots, as the mind played greater tricks than his swing.
Sensibly, the five-times PGA Tour winner suitably composed himself and settled for six with three conservative shots sacrificing a par, but Schauffele's delightful up and down from the bunker saw him move to 10 under with a fourth straight birdie suddenly plunging the entire shooting match into doubt.
'Making Japan proud'
The lead was cut to two on the 16th hole, but his state of anxiety was to be brief with world number six Schauffele, runner-up behind Tiger Woods in 2019, using his honour to inexplicably knock his ball short of the pin, hit the banks and water well before the green. Well before the Green Jacket.
Hideki’s bailout with mid-iron right was three-putt country, but a four felt like a birdie when Schauffele shuffled off with a six, well aware that his time was up for any notions of a late fitting for the Green Jacket. It will sting for some time because major moments of regret do not regress.
A par four at the 17th hole left Matsuyama on the cusp of history and he emulated Woods’ 15th major victory at the 18th two years ago by knowing a five was needed for victory and using them all to sign for a 73, one stroke clear of 24-year-old US debutant Will Zalatoris. Woods, missing due to his sickening car accident, appreciated the magnitude of the triumph.
Making Japan proud Hideki. Congratulations on such a huge accomplishment for you and your country. This historical Masters win will impact the entire golf world.
Matsuyama’s magnificence ends a tortuous and emotional road for Japan’s hopefuls since the advent of traditional major tournament golf in the 1940s.
Chako Higuchi claimed the 1977 PGA Championship and Hinako Shibuno succeeded at the 2019 British Open in the women’s game, but their male compatriots have been nearly men at the majors, encountering a slightly bewildering sense of obstacle.
Isao Aoki finished second to Jack Nicklaus at the US Open in 1980 and Nakajima third at the 1988 US PGA Championship won by Jeff Sluman. While Masashi ‘Jumbo’ Ozaki tied for eighth behind champion Tommy Aaron at the Masters in 1973 as previous highlights.
“This is a great achievement for the Japanese golf world,” said Ozaki.
It came about because of Mr Matsuyama’s own ability to take up challenges, his courage and all the effort that went into that.
Matsuyama finished lowest amateur on one under at the 2011 Masters to hint at a golden future that Aoki, the first Japanese man to win on the PGA Tour at the 1983 Hawaiian Open, always felt possible. It was a viewed shared by International Team captain Nick Price, playing a wondrous soothsayer at the 2013 President's Cup, when the former Open champion said: "His game is so good, he's going to win majors".
He is a national hero before he swings a golf club at Kasumigaseki Country Club, host venue of the Olympic tournament, a sport returned to the Games at Rio de Janeiro in 2016 after a 112-year absence and won by the former US Open champion Justin Rose, a player who Matsuyama usurped after two rounds of the Masters in daubing the most telling brush strokes of a professional career canvas only eight years old.
“This time, your Masters win came at a time when many people were feeling down, with many activities restricted in Japan amid a coronavirus pandemic, and you gave hope to so many people,” said Aoki.
I’m so happy to be able to see Japanese major win finally at Augusta National. I wanted to win there, but Augusta National didn’t allow me to play there successfully. It will be great that he is playing at the Tokyo Olympics as a Masters champion.
"It also is a very big one for Japan, too," he told GolfDigest. Now it is the Covid-19 era, and everybody isn’t happy now, but this big news can make us very happy and give us some hope."
'Looking forward to Tokyo'
Alongside Naomi Osaka, Japan’s modest and magnificent four-times winning Grand Slam tennis champion, Tokyo 2021 suddenly has the faces on which to promote the Olympic Games, the Corinthian values of commitment to competition, modesty and integrity in the heat of battle and the innate ability to prosper in adversity. A marketing man’s dream is as simple as Hideki knocking in a one footer.
“I’m really looking forward to the Olympic Games in Tokyo,” said Matsuyama, whose back nine of 30 in a seven under 65 on Saturday was the highlight of his rip-roaring 10 under winning total of 278.
If I am on the team, and maybe it looks like I will be, I’ll do my best to represent my country, and hopefully I’ll play well.
You can quickly think of Carl Lewis in Los Angeles, Michael Johnson in Atlanta, Cathy Freeman in Sydney, Mo Farah in London or Michael Phelps in wherever you care to think of as examples of Olympic poster boys or girls who produced under intense pressure, under the great weight of expectation.
Being home-grown is the extra ingredient to fascinate the locals, and Japan’s addiction to golf as the country with the most courses outside of the USA on the planet makes Hideki heaven-sent. It is not baseball or sumo wrestling, but golf represents a way of life in Japan when you study the driving ranges at the core of everyday life. A young major champion re-energises the sport as a game for the young, a passion to be enjoyed by every age.
It would be quite an honour. But I’m not sure about my schedule. If the schedules worked out and I am in Japan when that happens and they ask me, what an honour that would be.
Naomi Osaka bei der Siegerehrung der Australian Open
Image credit: Getty Images
Unlike Osaka, who will be highly fancied for gold in tennis where you only have to face the person on the other side of the net, golf is more of a game of chance in a field of over 100. But he will hope to feature prominently in chasing a medal amid the national outpouring of joy in Japan.
Matsuyama already reached his gold standard when he donned the Green Jacket. He did the hard part on an august evening at Augusta. He just needs to turn up for the locals to revel in witnessing a true national icon on home soil.
Japan suddenly has its Olympic golden boy in a sport it has always made space for. Now all Hideki needs are the Games to go with his masterful game.
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