SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS – APRIL 01: Hideki Matsuyama of Japan lines up a putt on the 14th green during the second round of the Valero Texas Open at TPC San Antonio on April 01, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
The same golfing gods who ensured an historic first Masters Tournament triumph for Asia some 12 months ago are now being called upon to ensure Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama is fully fit to put up a worthy title defence this week.
His monumental one-stroke victory at Augusta National in Georgia sent a golf-loving nation into dizzying heights, leading thousands of enthusiasts to throng driving ranges, buy the same golf equipment that he uses and tee up at local golf courses while mimicking his trademark pause on the backswing as Matsuyama-mania gripped Japan.
As the country’s long-awaited first male major champion, it culminated with him receiving the Prime Minister’s Award as Matsuyama was hailed a hero upon his return to his homeland. Subsequent wins at the ZOZO Championship, the PGA TOUR’s only tournament in Japan, and Sony Open in Hawaii during a spectacular nine-month stretch of golf are now suddenly forgotten as he pulled out of his last two events, THE PLAYERS Championship in early March and last week’s Valero Texas Open, due to a troubling neck and back injury.
The 30-year-old said he withdrew from Texas to preserve his body and channel all his focus and energy towards his return to Augusta National. It may not be the best of preparation for the year’s first major but for those who remember well, Matsuyama had stepped foot on Georgia’s hallowed turf a year ago without a hint that he would adorn the Green Jacket, until something “clicked” at the practice range on the eve of the Masters.
Mexican Abraham Ancer, who was one of Matsuyama’s playing partners in the opening two rounds last year, recalled the Japanese star enjoying the rub of the greens en route to rounds of 69 and 71 to position himself for a weekend major charge. “It looked like he was playing some good golf and even if he hit a wayward shot, he found a way to make birdie or make the most out of it. Whenever you see somebody making the putts when they need to and if they happen to hit a wayward shot it happens to kick back onto the fairway, you can see it was something special brewing for sure,” said Ancer of his Presidents Cup International teammate.
Xander Schauffele had a front row seat watching Matsuyama march towards Masters history in the final two rounds, much to his own dismay as he endured another close call at breaking his own major duck. The American star, who has close connections with Japan as his mother grew up in the country, said Matsuyama simply upped his game into full throttle after a weather-break during the third round where he blitzed the final eight holes in six-under.
“Saturday was honestly his day … that was just unbelievable coming out of the rain delay. My goodness, he just did everything perfectly. It was sort of one of those moments where like everything just clicks and boy, is it nice when it happens at Augusta or any major,” said Schauffele, a four-time PGA TOUR winner
“So he kind of had that moment on Saturday and picked it up right where he left off on Sunday.”
Whether or not Matsuyama is 100% fit, it is a certainty he will tee it up as reigning Masters champion and compete through any pain barrier until he can no longer endure. Japanese athletes take great pride in representing their flag and Matsuyama will be no different.
Winning the Masters has been a lifelong goal since he made his Augusta National debut in 2011, courtesy of a milestone win at the 2010 Asia Pacific Amateur Championship (AAC) in Tokyo – an event created by Augusta National, the R&A and Asia Pacific Golf Confederation in support of the development of the game in the Far East. Matsuyama was rather fortuitous as he only got into the AAC field after Japan, as host, received four additional spots in addition to an initial six places.
“It’s been a great blessing to become the Masters champion. It’s been great to go to various tournaments and to be introduced as the Masters champion,” he said. “Being the first Japanese to win a major, and especially the Masters, has made me really happy. I know I’m a happier person.”
Ancer is delighted for Matsuyama’s happiness as he appreciates the weight he carries on his shoulders each week. “It’s unbelievable … he goes everywhere, he’s got a lot of people and media following him. Probably only Tiger (Woods) is the guy out here that deals with that more than him but I can see how much pressure he could feel for sure. Being in Japan a couple of times now, I realize how big golf is over there and Hideki is an absolute legend for the whole country. I can definitely see the magnitude of winning an event like that and what it has meant for Japan.”
Before his shortened week in Texas, Matsuyama told a media conference he often sets his own expectations which ultimately has been a driving force for his vast success where he is now an eight-time TOUR winner. He also expressed being jittery about hosting the traditional Champions Dinner where he will set the menu and say a few words to a room occupied exclusively by Masters champions.
“Looking forward is one way to put it; another is I really hope I play well. There’s some expectations from myself, whether it’s pressure or not,” he said. “The same with the Champions Dinner. I don’t speak English very well, and so it’s kind of a two-sided coin. I’m looking forward to it, of course, to be with all those great past Masters champions but at the same time too, very nervous about the speech I will be giving.”
As the clock ticks towards the 86th playing of the Masters, every Japanese golf fan will be on the edge of their seats to see if Matsuyama will be fully fit and put on a strong defence. But in its own special way, there is really nothing that Matsuyama needs to do or prove than enjoy being called the 2021 Masters Champion on the first tee. He has already inspired thousands of kids in Japan, India and across Asia to shoot for the stars and there is no doubt he will win many more times on the PGA TOUR, if not a few more Green Jackets.
His place in golf history is already etched, irrespective of what happens this week.
Note: Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, marketing & communications – APAC for the PGA TOUR and is based in Malaysia.