Magical Matsuyama makes Masters history for Asia by winning at Augusta

Hideki Matsuyama of Japan is awarded the Masters Trophy and the Green Jacket during the Green Jacket Presentation Ceremony following the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, Sunday, April 11, 2021.

Hideki Matsuyama wrote a new chapter in Japanese golf history as he became the first player from the country to win the Masters Tournament, which is much revered there.

Ten years after Matsuyama first came to play at Augusta in 2011 after winning the Asia Pacific Amateurs, he took the main prize. That year in 2011 Charl Schwartzel took the Jacket from Phil Mickelson, and both were in the field this week, too, at Augusta,  Georgia.

Overcoming thee intense pressure and the weight of a nation which loves it golf, Matsuyama began the day with a four-shot lead and after a nervy one-over 73 in the final round he won by one with his 10-under 278 total over American debutant Will Zalatoris (70). Matsuyama became only the second Asian male golfer to win a major following Y.E. Yang’s triumph at the 2009 PGA Championship. Two Japanese women have won women Majors, too. Hisako Higuchi won the 1977 LPGA Championship, and Hinako Shibuno won the 2019 Women’s British Open

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.

Matsuyama’s ascendency marks a full circle in his stellar career as it was at Augusta National 10 years ago that he first announced his arrival on the global stage by emerging as the low amateur. Then, he watched up close Phil Mickelson slipping the green jacket on Charl Schwartzel, and he was soon beaming with pride after last year’s champion, Dustin Johnson did the honours for him in Butler Cabin.

The long-awaited victory, which was Matsuyama’s sixth PGA TOUR title and his first since August 2017, was written in the stars as seven days ago, 17-year-old compatriot Tsubasa Kajitani won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Matsuyama had previously finished 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.

Matsuyama hit 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 to as high as World No. 2. But then with no wins through 2018, 2019 and 2020, he sipped down to 30s. Starting the week at 25th he will now rise to 14th.

When asked if his Masters breakthrough will finally set him apart from other Japanese greats who include the likes of Isao Aoki, Jumbo Ozaki, Tommy Nakajima, Shigeki Maruyama and Shingo Katayama, Matsuyama, in typical fashion 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.”

“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.”

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 as they say at Augusta National, the Masters often begins on the back nine on Sunday afternoon and Matsuyama soon felt the full brunt 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, who became the eighth champion to close with an over-par round.

“But I caught myself, and 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. And when that happens, the confidence returns. And so I started the tournament with a lot of confidence.”

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