This may be the first time anyone ever got a green jacket and you wanted to say, “That was the best bogey-bogey-par-bogey finish in golf history.”
The weight on Matsuyama, who hadn’t won in four years despite arriving at Augusta (Ga.) National ranked 25th in the world, is a sports phenomenon so much beyond what American fans can imagine for a U.S. athlete that it requires context to appreciate.
In coming years, some may assume that Matsuyama’s Masters, though excruciatingly tense for a few minutes as he and Xander Schauffele stood on the 16th tee — Matsuyama ahead by just two shots — was not among the more remarkable in recent times. After all, once Schauffele gagged, hitting in the water and making a hideous triple bogey at the par-3 16th, Matsuyama had enough cushion that he could post one of the uglier finishes in major history and still win by a shot over American rookie Will Zalatoris.
Compared with the melodrama of many Masters, Matsuyama’s 1-over-par 73 on Sunday, during which he often had a five-shot lead, might seem an entertaining but not hair-raising Masters finale. Don’t be fooled. Few players have held themselves together under such scrutiny and for such symbolic stakes in the eyes of their countrymen.
The demonic game of golf rose up at the worst times to attack Matsuyama’s will. On the first hole, with a four-shot lead to start the day, he drove wildly and made a bogey. But he composed himself instantly.
Then, after summoning himself to play the next 13 holes in 3 under despite several barely missed birdie putts, Matsuyama’s greatest strength — his iron play — bit him. At the 15th, with a 4-iron in his hands to reach the easy par-5 in two shots and ice his victory, an adrenaline rush and a too-low trajectory sent his ball bounding into the water far beyond the green.
There was still time to self-destruct. Instead, it was Schauffele who came apart at the 16th.
To me, considering his rocky start, then factoring in the way his lead rapidly dwindled in the evening, perhaps we should rank Matsuyama’s self-control, his ball-striking and his resolution as part of a genuinely remarkable Masters Sunday.
The pressure on players from Australia, Canada, Spain, South Africa and every other country has always been intense. That’s why Australian Adam Scott’s win at the Masters in 2013 was such an emotional relief.
The hidden “X factor” in Greg Norman’s famous final-round collapse to Nick Faldo, blowing a six-shot lead in 1996, was probably the pressure and the exhilaration associated with possibly becoming the first Aussie to win the Masters.
For decades, I have watched the way the press from Japan obsessively covers its athletes, especially in golf and baseball, sports in which it shares a common, profound passion with America. You have to see it to believe it. It is adoration and judgment, celebrity and imminent disgrace, the highest honor and profound loss of face, pressed close against each other.
A dozen or dozens of reporters and photographers will follow just one player from Japan, reporting his (or her) every move day after day, sometimes month after month. No doubt, the royals in Great Britain have it worse for ludicrous levels of scrutiny over trivialities and flaws. But for many years, whenever a player from Japan has been in contention at any major, especially the Masters, everywhere he looked he would see a moving mass of photographers and reporters from his country.
What was different this year? Because of the pandemic, there were strict limits on press access — in number and proximity. You might as well have banned a firing squad, especially for the shy Matsuyama.
“Being in front of the media is still difficult,” Matsuyama said this week. “It’s not my favorite thing to do, to stand and answer questions. And so with fewer media, it’s been a lot less stressful for me, and I’ve enjoyed this week.”
Just how private is Matsuyama? In 2017, he mentioned to reporters at a PGA Tour event that he was now a father. His wife, Mei, had given birth to a baby girl a month earlier. This was only remarkable in one respect: Nobody knew Matsuyama was married! Asked why it wasn’t common knowledge, he said, “Nobody asked me that question.”
Japan’s infatuation with golf ignited after a televised competition in 1957, when top pros Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono beat Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret in the Canada Cup, with Nakamura winning individual honors by seven shots. In a sport dominated by Americans, Japan had competed in an international competition and won handily.
By 1977, Hisako Higuchi became the first woman from Japan to win a major title at the LPGA Championship. In 1980 at the U.S. Open, I followed for four days as Isao Aoki, a Hall of Famer, went head-to-head with Jack Nicklaus in the same group. “Jack’s Back!” was the headline from that two-shot win over Aoki. But Nicklaus had to set a U.S. Open scoring record to hold him off.
From that day, Japan, its players, its press and its public has waited and hoped for the country’s first winner of a men’s major. It has been a long 41 years.
How many microscopes has Matsuyama been under for the past 10 years as he finished in the top 10 in seven majors but frequently showed nerves? Few players, even excellent ones, can suddenly find it in themselves and their games to win “out of nowhere.” But Matsuyama, despite his long drought, just did it.
“Haven’t really played my best. The last three years, there’s been different reasons why I haven’t been able to win,” Matsuyama said this week through an interpreter. “But starting early this year, I have a coach [Hidenori Mezawa] with me now from Japan. Things that I was feeling in my swing, I could talk to him about that. ... He has a good eye. It’s like having a mirror for my swing. ... Hopefully now it’s all starting to come together.”
On Sunday, everything did not come together for Matsuyama. In fact, things almost came apart, both early and late. That makes his win more admirable, not less.
“It’s been a struggle recently,” Matsuyama said afterward. “This year, no top-10s, haven’t even contended. So I came with little or no expectation. ... But Wednesday I found something in my swing. That gave me confidence.”
Hideki Matsuyama, who spent Saturday’s rain delay playing games on his phone in his car, did not ask to be a symbol of his golf-loving nation’s quest for a major champion. But when the moment came, he was equal to it — by one shot. If your heart is kind, give a thanks for that.