Sports

Golf: Matsuyama brings Japan its first glorious Green Jacket from Masters

V Krishnaswamy April 12 | Updated on April 12, 2021

Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama

Writes a new chapter in Asian golf history

A typically understated Hideki Matsuyama never speaks of his dreams or ambitions, and only claims to do his best. Ten years ago, when he first set foot at Augusta National as an amateur and emerged as the top amateur, he nursed a dream he never spoke about. On Sunday he achieved it as the 2020 champion slipped the Masters Green Jacket on 2021 champion in Augusta, Georgia.

Matsuyama held his nerves in the closing stages and went on to create Masters Tournament history on Sunday after overcoming intense pressure to become the first Japanese male golfer to triumph at Augusta National and put on the famous green jacket.

When Matsuyama first came to play at Augusta in 2011 after winning the Asia Pacific Amateurs, Charl Schwartzel took the Jacket from Phil Mickelson.

Matsuyama, who led by four overnight, carded a one-over 73 in the final round to eke out a one-shot win over American debutant Will Zalatoris (70). It made him only the second Asian male golfer to win a major following Y.E. Yang’s triumph at the 2009 PGA Championship.

Jordan Spieth, the 2015 Masters winner, and Xander Schauffele, playing in the final group with Matsuyama, finished three back in a share of third place after rounds of 70 and 72 respectively.

Meanwhile, Asia’s other big hope, Korea’s Si Woo Kim closed with a final round 72 to finish T12 on 286 to earn a return trip next year’s Masters.

Jon Rahm (66) was tied fifth with Marc Leishman (73), while Justin Rose, who lit up the week with a 65 on day added 72-72-74 and finished seventh as some of the big names Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka missed the halfway cut.

Matsuyama’s win completed as amazing Augusta double for Japan. Exactly a week earlier a 17-year-old compatriot Tsubasa Kajitani won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

Matsuyama is looking forward to returning to his golf-crazed home country soon to celebrate with his family and friends. “I can't imagine what it's going to be like, but what a thrill and honour it will be for me to take the green jacket back to Japan. I'm really looking forward to it,” said Matsuyama.

Matsuyama’s previous high finishes at Augusta included fifth and tied seventh at the Masters in 2015 and 2016 respectively while his best major outing was a joint runner-up result in the 2017 U.S. Open.

Carrying the weight of a golf-loving nation, Japan, Matsuyama overcame nervy and tense moments but emerged victor in the event and stayed as calm as the people of his nation remain even in moments of extreme joy.

Zalatoris’ bogeys, birdies spell disaster

Zalatoris who opened the day birdie-birdie cut into the lead more than once, but his bogeys on 10th and 12th spelt disaster and even birdies on 15th and 17th could not help him overtake Matsuyama.

Matsuyama, who endured a purple patch in 2016-17 with a streak of victories worldwide, won his sixth PGA TOUR title and his first since August 2017. Back in 2016, when he was riding high, his last six starts of the calendar year saw him win four times – Japan Open, WGC-HSBC in Shanghai, Mitsui Taiheiyo Masters and the Hero World Challenge. The fifth place at Tour Championship started the streak, which also included a second place at CIMB Classic.

Then he began 2017 with a runner-up finish at Tournament of Champions and three starts later he won the Waste Management Open. That same year he added, the WGC-Bridgestone in August, but did not win again till Sunday. A week after winning WGC-Bridgestone he was fifth at PGA and rose as high as World No. 2. But then with no wins through 2018, 2019 and 2020, he slipped to 30s. Starting the week at 25th he will now rise to 14th.

“I’m really happy,” Matsuyama said through his long-time interpreter Bob Turner. “My nerves really didn't start on the second nine. It was right from the start today and right to the very last putt. Hopefully I'll be a pioneer in this (winning the Masters) and many other Japanese will follow. I'm glad to be able to open the floodgates hopefully, and many more will follow me,” said the shy champion.

An opening bogey against Zalatoris’ fast start which featured birdies in the first two holes quickly saw Matsuyama’s lead dwindle down to one stroke early on. However the Japanese star bounced back with birdies on Hole Nos. 2, 8 and 9 to make the turn with what looked like a comfortable five-shot lead.

But the action, as always at Augusta National, begins on the back nine on Sunday afternoon. Matsuyama soon felt the intense pressure of trying to chase down his maiden major title.

He dropped four bogeys, including three over his closing four holes, but eventually prevailed after safely two-putting from six feet for a closing bogey. Once the magnitude of his major breakthrough had sunk in, he raised his hands in jubilation and shed tears of joy while walking back to the clubhouse.

“My plan this morning was to wake up about 9:30. But needless to say, I arose much earlier than that and couldn't go back to sleep. So I came to the golf course early. Had a really good warm-up. I felt really good going to the first tee, until I stood on the first tee, and then it hit me that I'm in the last group of the Masters Tournament and I'm the leader by four strokes. And then I was really nervous,” said Matsuyama.

“The plan was just go out and do my best for 18 holes. And so that was my thought throughout day, just keep doing my best. It's been a struggle recently. This year, no top-10s, haven't even contended. So I came to Augusta with little or no expectations. But as the week progressed, as I practiced, especially on Wednesday, I felt something again. I found something in my swing.”

A question often asked of Matsuyama is whether he is the greatest Japanese golfer ahead of the likes of Isao Aoki, Jumbo Ozaki, Tommy Nakajima, Shigeki Maruyama and Shingo Katayama ? Matsuyama, as usual, replied: “You know, I can't say I'm the greatest. However, I'm the first to win a major, and if that's the bar, then I've set it.”

Published on April 12, 2021

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