The first men’s major title for Japan, a win of inestimable meaning for a country with feelings for golf that make reverence look puny, came after its 29-year-old hopeful refrained from panic when panic surely breathed through the Monday morning living rooms of his country’s 47 prefectures. In the genteel horror in which golf long has specialized, a yawning six-shot lead with seven holes to play at Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club shrank all the way to two with three to play, in part because of Xander Schauffele’s four straight birdies and in part because Matsuyama’s approach at No. 15 went scurrying through the green and hurrying for a swim.
He bogeyed that, No. 16 and No. 18, but he launched steely drives on Nos. 17 and 18, and he performed his highbrow knack for scrambling from a greenside bunker on No. 18 with a 73 at 10 under par, one shot ahead of phenom Will Zalatoris and three ahead of Jordan Spieth and Schauffele, whose mounting hopes disintegrated on No. 16 with the first triple bogey of his 1,042 major golf holes. “My nerves really didn’t start on the second nine today,” Matsuyama said in Butler Cabin on the CBS telecast. “It was right from the start today and right to the very last putt.”
“I remember the feeling of a four-shot lead,” said Spieth, who never quite menaced, “and he’s got Japan on his back and maybe Asia on his back. I can’t imagine kind of how that was, trying to sleep on that, even with somebody who’s had so much success.”
“Man, he was something else,” Schauffele said. “He played like a winner needs to play.”
“My plan this morning was to wake up about 9:30,” Matsuyama said. “But needless to say, I rose much earlier than that and couldn’t go back to sleep.”
With the knock-in bogey putt that closed it, he drifted into some form of rare consciousness, trying to process that he had reached the perch that people long pegged for him when he was low amateur at the 2011 Masters and then won five PGA Tour events between 2014 and 2017, the last with a closing 61 at mighty Firestone in Akron, Ohio.
It followed upon 17-year-old Tsubasa Kajitani’s win the previous week in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur and upon two LPGA major wins by Japanese women: Hisako Higuchi, who received a ticker-tape parade through Tokyo after she won the 1977 LPGA Championship, and Hinako Shibuno, who achieved the remarkable when she turned her first major appearance into a first major title at the 2019 Women’s British Open. It provided the Masters with a 12th winning nationality and men’s major golf with a second champion from Asia, following Y.E. Yang of South Korea holding off Tiger Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship. And it placed Matsuyama in the Japanese sports stratosphere, one of the world’s shiniest places, where he can mingle with Shohei Ohtani, Naomi Osaka and Yuzuru Hanyu.
And as Matsuyama looked forward and said, “With me doing it, hopefully it will set an example for [the youth of Japan] that it’s possible,” his win also got golf intellectuals looking back at the Japanese male golfers who had graced the game through bygone decades without quite snaring a summit. Those included 78-year-old Isao Aoki, the 1980 U.S. Open runner-up who forced Jack Nicklaus to earn the title; 66-year-old Tommy Nakajima, who finished in the top 10 in six majors between 1986 and 1991; 53-year-old Toshimitsu Izawa, who tied for fourth at the 2001 Masters; 51-year-old Shigeki Maruyama, who won thrice on the PGA Tour and finished fourth at the 2004 U.S. Open at brutal Shinnecock Hills; 48-year-old Shingo Katayama, who finished fourth at the 2009 Masters; the Ozaki brothers — Masashi (Jumbo), Tateo (Jet) and Naomichi (Joe), with Masashi finishing in a tied for eighth at the 1973 Masters — and the endearing Ryo Ishikawa, tabbed a phenom at 17 when he arrived at Riviera in Los Angeles in 2009 and said: “Hello, America. I’m Ryo Ishikawa from Japan.”
Any American reporter present at that last event might have gone summoned to Japanese TV for a viewpoint on the teen, an indication of the kind of pressure Matsuyama knew as he awakened Sunday at 11 under and four shots ahead of four chargers, the first male Japanese golfer to occupy that loft of expectations in a major. The lead quickly shrank to one when Matsuyama made a visit to the pines on the right of No. 1, foretelling a bogey, right around the same time a second birdie from Zalatoris dropped in on No. 2.
Of the four who began at 7 under, the steadiest challenge came from Zalatoris, a 24-year-old San Franciscan who played at Wake Forest, has skyrocketed from No. 2,006 at the end of 2018 to No. 46 now and played only his third major and his first Masters. “It was an absolute treat,” Zalatoris told reporters, “and obviously to come up one short and be disappointed is motivating but obviously very exciting.”
Matsuyama carefully upped his lead back to three shots before it narrowed to two. And then around 4:45 p.m. — or 5:45 a.m. where it mattered most — you could feel the world’s 11th-most-populous country lurk to the edge of joy. Zalatoris curled a par putt helplessly in front of the hole on No. 10, and Matsuyama followed a stunning second shot into No. 9 with a deserved birdie as his lead yawned to five with the front-runner at 13 under. That gave him birdies at Nos. 2, 8 and 9 after his bogey at No. 1, plus his par save on No. 5 from the fairway bunker when his 17-foot putt went screaming in.
By then, the chasers who began four shots behind Matsuyama — Justin Rose, Schauffele, Marc Leishman, Zalatoris — had been sailing sideways variously, and soon the lead reached six. The round had gone drained of suspense — mercifully for those watching on Tokyo Broadcasting System.
Golf, mean as hell as ever, would not allow them a tranquil Monday. Schauffele, a San Diegan who has finished in the top 10 of eight of his 15 majors, birdied Nos. 12, 13, 14 and 15, the last of which featured a legitimate uh-oh from Matsuyama when his 4-iron from the fairway went for a hasty ride to the water behind the green. He wrung a bogey from his scrambling there.
Then he received a bogey and a gift on No. 16, when Schauffele free-fell out of contention by smacking a tee shot that grappled with the wind and teetered into the water, then hitting a third shot over the green to a spectator in a lawn chair.
Still, Zalatoris, with his fear level at zero and his future at infinite, rang in an 18-foot par on No. 18, leaving Matsuyama just two shots ahead at 11 under. Matsuyama would have to play Nos. 17 and 18 against himself, against the fresh horror and against the familiar weight — until the clock struck a happy 8 a.m. Monday in Japan and he had carried all of it, even as it had looked heavy.
— Chuck Culpepper