Golf

Hideki Matsuyama’s Masters win

As thunder rumbled and rain hammered down, Hideki Matsuyama sat in his courtesy car playing games on his phone, oblivious to the storm he was about to trigger back home in his native Japan.

The 29 year old’s next objective was how he would extricate himself from a wayward drive into the trees when he returned to Augusta’s 11th hole of his third round last Saturday afternoon.

When the hooter had sounded to signal the only pause in play at the 85th Masters, the odds suggested this would be another men’s major that would come and go without Japanese success.

Matsuyama had been steady to that point, no dropped shots but just one birdie and he was only on the fringes of contending. But when he returned to one of the famed course’s most formidable par-four holes he could, at least, identify a clear path to the green.

His second shot was fired with a truncated follow through to ensure requisite low trajectory. Through the air his ball never left the flag, typical for this player of renowned ball striking prowess.

A birdie chance from around 10 feet was created, the sort that in recent years he would often squander. But not this time, Matsuyama rolled it in to ignite one of the greatest Saturday charges we have ever seen.

The closing eight holes were covered in an astonishing six-under-par. The Japanese star’s bogey-free seven-under-par 65 gave him a four-shot 54-hole lead which proved the bedrock for a first men’s major success in his country’s golfing history.

A little over 24 hours later Japan’s networks were interrupting into normal breakfast programming with breaking news alerts to herald Matsuyama’s landmark victory.

Commentators, led by Tommy Nakajima, choked back tears to describe the denouement of a one-shot win that was more comfortable than the narrow margin suggests.

“Matsuyama has won,” they cried. “A Japanese man will claim the Green Jacket, Matsuyama has done it!”

Nakajima is one of several male players from the country who had the potential but never quite emulated the achievements of the country’s only major winners; 2019 Women’s Open winner Hinako Shibuno and Chacko Higuchi at the 1977 LPGA Championship.

The now commentator infamously blew his Open chances in St Andrews’ Road Hole bunker, known as “the sands of Nakajima”, after he putted into the hazard and took four shots to escape during the third round of the 1978 championship.

Earlier that year Nakajima ran up a 13 on the 13th hole of the Masters, but this was someone who also spent 85 weeks in the world’s top 10 in the 1980’s.

Isao Aoki, Jumbo Ozaki, Shingo Katyama, Shigeki Maruyama and Ryo Ishikawa are other revered figures from this land of more than nine million golfers. They too never quite made it into the winners’ circle on the greatest golfing stages.

From the moment four years ago when Matsuyama fired a 61 to win the WGC Invitational on a tough Firestone course in Ohio, his major winning credentials were apparent.

He rose to number two in the world, but since then putting problems prompted a tumble down the rankings. Ninety-two winless tournaments followed and he was 25th in the world heading into last week’s Masters.

It is a curiosity that Augusta’s treacherous greens can yield champions who possess a less than assured putting touch. Think Bernhard Langer, Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia for examples and now add Matsuyama to the list.

His win has prompted wild celebrations back home in a country where he is destined to be a poster boy for the Tokyo Olympics if they go ahead later this year.

There will also be plenty of back slapping too in the corridors of the Augusta National, somewhere that has always held high regard for the fertile marketplace of Asian golf.

They have long since issued invitations to players from Far East countries to ensure interest in their tournament in that golf crazy part of the world. Along with the R&A they also created the Asia Pacific Amateur Championship in 2009.

Reward for victory in that event is a ticket to play the Masters. Matsuyama won it in 2010 and 2011 and on his first visit to the Georgia course a decade ago he was in Butler Cabin to celebrate winning the low amateur prize.

Now he has returned to receive the famed Green Jacket, the first Asian winner of the Masters and surely adding millions of yen to future television rights deals with Japanese broadcasters.

The naturally reticent Matsuyama has always travelled with an army of media in tow. “It is not my favourite thing to do, to stand and answer questions,” he said after taking the lead in round three.

But he is well used to it and now must prepare himself for some of the most intense domestic scrutiny that any athlete will ever endure.

“I can’t imagine what it will be like for poor Hideki,” Ernie Els told the Golf Channel. “It will be unbelievable.”

This was a very significant win for golf’s global footprint. “I’ve been blessed to spend a lot of time in Japan and I know they love the game of golf,” tweeted Jack Nicklaus, the winner of a record 18 majors and six Masters titles.

“They’re also very proud people and they’re even prouder today! I competed against the great Isao Aoki, and know how revered he was and is. Hideki will also now forever be a hero to his country.

“This is a great day for him, for Japan, and for the global game of golf!”

Matsuyama’s win came a week after compatriot Tsubasa Kajitani won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur on the same course.

That same weekend the female game unearthed the prodigious talents of Thailand’s Patty Tavatanakit at the ANA Inspiration – the first of their five annual majors. Asian women have long dominated and now the axis of the men’s game could also be tilting east.

Contrastingly this Masters proved disappointing for most UK players. Justin Rose thrilled us with his opening 65, but the Englishman needed to cling on and hole an inspired birdie putt at the last to finish seventh.

Bob MacIntyre’s share of 12th was worthy of celebration. He enjoyed a superb Masters debut, albeit in a sizeable shadow cast by the exceptional rookie performance of American runner-up Will Zalatoris.

The Scottish left-hander finished high enough to guarantee an invitation to return next year and, as he admitted afterwards, he would have taken that had it been offered at the start of the week.

The rest of UK contingent failed to cope with the fast, firm conditions and nor were they able to capitalise when the course softened after the Saturday afternoon rains.

Matsuyama, most certainly did. Could he have had any idea of what was about to happen after that hooter sounded?

What is beyond doubt, is that solitary moments, sitting in his car relaxing with his phone, are going to be very hard to come by in future.

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