Hideki Matsuyama gave a masterclass at the Masters Tournament to become the first Japanese Major winner in history
If this week was any indication, we’re going to see a lot more of the American in the time to come.
In 2011, a reticent, stocky, Japanese amateur, teed it up at Augusta National for the Masters Tournament. The young lad had landed a ticket to the biggest stage he’d ever played on by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship—a newly-minted (at the time) amateur event supported by the Masters Committee, aimed at giving some of the best young players in Asia a chance to compete at Augusta. At this point, Matsuyama was a complete unknown, obscured completely by the bright glare of his flamboyant countryman, Ryo Ishikawa. Ishikawa, one-year younger to Matsuyama had turned pro two years earlier, won a bunch of pro events on the Japanese Tour, and was a darling of the country’s media which followed him around the world. That year, Matsuyama quietly took the spotlight, winning top amateur honours and finishing in the Top-30. The story of the 2011 Masters however was more about loss rather than triumph. 21-year-old Rory McIlroy, on the hunt for his first Major Championship of the year (after disappointing last-gasp losses at the US Open and the British Open) went into the final round with a seemingly unassailable four-shot lead. The Ulsterman’s game collapsed on the back nine and he frittered away the Green Jacket after fumbling home with a horrific 80.
I wonder if McIlroy’s misfortune was playing on Matsuyama’s mind when he teed it up last week leading by four strokes going into the final day of the 2021 Masters Tournament. Now 28 years old, and widely regarded as one of the best players in the world, Matsuyama has long outraced Ishikawa in almost every aspect (besides, perhaps speaking English; Ishikawa speaks fluently). But the big hurdle—a Major Championship—made even larger-than-life by the fact that no Japanese player had ever won a Major Championship, had obviously affected his nerves a bit as he stumbled to an opening-hole bogey. “I felt nervous from the start of the day and right through until the end,” Matsuyama said after the win. But there were portents: earlier this month, Matsuyama’s compatriot, Tsubasa Kajitani, won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship.
Matsuyama seemed to get a grip on himself after a shaky start in the final round and survived a spirited charge by Xander Schauffele who reeled off four straight birdies on the back nine. With his lead down to two strokes with three holes to go, Matsuyama got a reprieve when Schauffele hit his ball into the water on the 16th hole and crashed to a triple bogey. The most impressive performance of the tournament came from a rookie. 24-year-old American Will Zalatoris played exceptionally well throughout the week and didn’t take his foot off the pedal till the finish line. Two birdies in the last three holes on the final day brought Zalatoris tantalisingly close—one stroke—to getting into a playoff with Matsuyama. Even more impressive was his demeanour—calm and measured—in what was undoubtedly the biggest pressure situation the young man has ever been in. If this week was any indication, we’re going to see a lot more of the American in the time to come.
There’s something insidiously uncharitable about some of the media reports coming out of major broadcast and online networks in the US about Matsuyama’s win. Maybe I’m just being touchy, but then again, I’m Indian, and the world knows exactly how politically correct we have a reputation for being. So, feel free to disagree, but in my mind, all these off-the-cuff remarks about Matsuyama benefitting from the lack of large galleries at the Masters Tournament is, at best, insensitive, and at worst, prejudiced. To be fair, similar comments were made last year in August after another first-time-winner—Colin Morikawa—took the PGA Championship—the first gallery-free Major event in the Covid-era. Instead of reacting to the insinuation Morikawa turned the attention to how well he had played and indicated that he would have loved to have the galleries roar for some of the great shots he had hit. Matsuyama who understands English but prefers to speak through a translator didn’t rail against that suggestion directly. Instead, when asked a question about whether he considers himself the best Japanese player of all time, Matsuyama paused, before finishing down and through with a flourish. “I don’t know if I’m the greatest but I certainly am the first one to win a Major, so if that’s the bar, then… well I’ve said it.”
Talking of portents, what are the odds that both Kajitani and Matsuyama should win a Major event months before the biggest sporting spectacle in the world takes place in their country? I don’t know much about odds, but in terms of inspiration, and inherent motivation to do something for their country, the Japanese are peerless. Whatever the size of the gallery that the IOC allows on the course at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, everyone present will be rooting for Matsuyama with a fervour never seen in Japan before. What a homecoming that’s going to be for a once-upon-a-time shy kid who loved nothing more than flying under the radar. The wallflower has become the rock star. I wouldn’t bet against him. Make no mistake, Matsuyama is going for Gold.