Out there Thursday afternoon stood 2021 Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama cutting a vivid figure in the red-and-white golf shirt with the diagonal pattern, and on both sides outside the ropes stood no one, and to the left of the green stood a smallish stand of achingly empty seats, and behind the green stood a larger stand of achingly empty seats, and around the green stood mostly photographers — and what lenses.
Moving around No. 18 proved gallingly easy.
What you wouldn’t give for an inconvenient crowd and an inadvertent elbow in the ribs.
While the goose bumps chafed somewhere beneath the skin, unable to come out and play, Olympic golf, of all lunacies, reminded that the past 19 months in the world have shown many dour markers and many, many worse than this but that the absence of fan noise has been a persistent bummer.
“Aw, it would have been amazing,” said Australian golfer Marc Leishman, ranked 36th in the world, who soon added, “It would have been electric.”
“Yeah,” said Xander Schauffele, the delightful polyglot Californian with the sweet ranking (No. 5), the half-French, half-German father and the mother born in Taiwan but raised in Japan from age 2. “Yeah, I mean, I’m sure there are lot of people wishing they were here to cheer him on. Hideki knows how much it would mean to win a Masters and a gold in the same year. It’s kind of a hard feat to do. But yeah, sports here in Japan is massive. They’re very proud, a prideful country, and they support one another to the best of their abilities. So I mean, I’m sure his phone’s blowing up, the people that have his phone number, and if not, I’m sure they’re sending him fan mail like crazy. So I’m sure they’re rooting him on.”
Maybe 80 people applauded Matsuyama’s finish with a 2-under-par 69, and maybe 79 of those wore the trademark shirts of volunteers.
If you wished to sigh, well, it’s a free country.
In an unassuming city way out northwest of Tokyo, the Olympics are holding their fourth-ever golf gathering, following upon 1900, 1904 and 2016, and the golfers continue to revel in the death of the dearth that lasted 112 years until Rio de Janeiro in 2016. “So cool, that was,” Britain’s Paul Casey said of the first tee. “An ounce of nerves, a hundred percent excitement.”
Sepp Straka, the 28-year-old Georgia Bulldog with an Austrian father and an American mother who moved from Vienna to Valdosta at age 14 yet seems to have kept his spirits up, shot an 8-under 63 in the incinerating heat for the early lead and said, “Out here this week it’s just special that the next one isn’t for another four years.”
So that’s the province of the players, digging the novelty, leaving a glummer province all to the onlooker: the want of noise combined with the knowledge of how this fervent sports country can make some noise. Japanese noise might still ring in certain ears from, say, the 2011 Asian Cup soccer tournament and Japan’s win in that happened clear over in Qatar.
Over here was Kasumigaseki Country Club, noiseless. Here was where the 2010 Asian-Pacific Amateur tournament, with a spot in the Masters awaiting the winner, went to an 18-year-old Matsuyama by five shots, when he blasted out of the woods on No. 14 while inspired by Phil Mickelson’s blast out of the woods on No. 13 at the 2010 Masters, of which Matsuyama said then, “I cannot play a shot as good as that, but I was pleased that mine was similar.”
Then he turned up at 19 at the 2011 Masters and finished tied for 27th (and tied with Mickelson) as low amateur, even as the Thursday there had coincided with a major aftershock of the colossal Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March. Matsuyama finished his first round then and said, “Yeah, I couldn’t concentrate.”
Then he closed in Augusta by saying, “Well, I’m going back to Sendai, and I will be volunteering over there” with earthquake relief, and then he returned to Tohoku Fukushi University with its damaged dorms. Only he bounced back across to North America and Europe fairly lickety-split, started showing up on major leader boards (six top-seven finishes between 2013 and 2017) and became viable enough that his Masters win seemed logical even after he felt it get heavy during the last four holes but hauled it across the line anyway.
“You know, I can’t say I’m the greatest” Japanese golfer, he said then in a world with Isao Aoki, Shigeki Maruyama, Tommy Nakajima, Shingo Katayama, Ryo Ishikawa, the Ozaki brothers. “However, I’m the first to win a major, and if that’s the bar, then I’ve set it.”
You could picture the joy among 126 million back home, even if you could picture it diffuse and confined to living rooms. Matsuyama finished tied for 16th with Michael Jordan in a Sasakawa Sports Foundation survey of Japan’s most popular athletes in late summer 2020, well behind names such as Shohei Ohtani (No. 3) and Naomi Osaka (No. 4) and impossibly brilliant figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu (No. 1). Well, he’s a good bet to move up next survey. He’s still just 29 somehow.
What a backdrop for this turn of Olympic golf and what a chance for noise to ring around the course and into the ears and then out onto the skin. Only it wound up all quiet and all wrong, with Matsuyama himself recovering from 10 days of positive coronavirus tests and some days of symptoms and then playing a round he found so-so and then walking from interview to interview, looking bummed, as might a guy with an inactive attention-neediness gland.
To a question about the absence of fans, he replied through an interpreter, “This experience could be the first and last that I ever get to do: to play Olympics in my home country. But hopefully tomorrow I’ll be able to put together a better round.”
To a question about pressure, he replied, “If I say there’s no pressure, I would be lying, so hopefully I’ll be able to embrace the pressure that’s upon me and just try to put together a nice round.”
To a question about a virus he became one of 200 million people to contract, he replied, “Yeah, it was very difficult [stamina-wise], probably toward the end a little bit of a mental side, and focus, going on, faded away from me, so that’s something that I need to put together.”
So, yeah, sure, sigh. …