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After sleepless night, golf-mad Japan celebrates Matsuyama’s Masters triumph

Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama celebrates with his green jacket after winning the Masters in Augusta, Ga., on Sunday.
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama celebrates with his green jacket after winning the Masters in Augusta, Ga., on Sunday. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
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TOKYO — There were a few bleary eyes in corporate Japan on Monday morning. In this golf-crazy nation, it's hard to overestimate the impact of Hideki Matsuyama's historic Masters triumph and impossible to count the hours of lost sleep it entailed.

Former track and field athlete So Takei was among many people who spent the early hours of Monday glued to a screen watching — and tweeting — as the dramatic final round unfolded.

“A legend in the golf world is born. A new era for golf begins!” he tweeted after the 29-year-old recorded Japan’s first Masters title — and Asia’s first. “Thank you for empowering happy news in the time of COVID-19.”

On Japanese Twitter, #GOHIDEKI started trending in the early hours of Monday morning. Soon, the top-trending hashtags were #MatsuyamaHideki, #GreenJacket, #theMasters, #Matsuyamawin, #historicmoment and #lasthole.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called the victory an “amazing feat.”

It was also the first time a Japanese man had won any of golf’s majors, and the pressure must have been enormous as Matsuyama began his final round on Sunday. In the end, he shot a 1-over round of 73 to win the tournament by one stroke over Will Zalatoris.

“Matsuyama is still young, so I have even greater hopes for him in the future,” Suga told reporters. “With the prolonged covid-19 pandemic, he’s given courage and inspiration to all Japanese people.”

Japan is in the grips of a fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic and has reimposed a quasi-state of emergency over much of the country, with bars and restaurants asked to close early.

That probably didn’t do Matsuyama any harm, freeing him from the gaggle of Japanese reporters who normally dog his every step, and he acknowledged Saturday that it had been a “lot less stressful” with fewer media representatives around.

But Sunday in Augusta, Ga., and Monday in Japan was a time for celebration, not complaint.

“I’m glad to be a pioneer and I hope many other Japanese will follow,” Matsuyama told the Japanese media.

Japanese golfer Yusaku Miyazato was also celebrating. “I can’t believe a day like this is here,” he said on a live TV broadcast. “I just want to tell him, ‘Thank you.’ ”

It has been a great month for Japanese golf, after 17-year-old Tsubasa Kajitani won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur championship.

The peak years of Japanese golf began during the nation’s postwar economic boom, when it became not only a status symbol, but a crucial part of corporate culture. Its popularity declined after the nation’s economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, but participation reportedly bounced back last year during the pandemic.

It also became a key part of the nation’s diplomatic armory in recent years, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe using his shared love of golf to build a close relationship with President Donald Trump.

A decade ago, a teenage Matsuyama had been the lowest-scoring amateur at the 2011 Masters. His honor then was a welcome ray of light in Japan’s recovery from the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, that left more than 22,000 people dead or missing.

The golfer had been in Australia at the time, but had returned home to find his accommodation at Tohoku Fukushi University destroyed and the nation gripped in grief. Unsure whether he should even compete in Augusta in 2011 or stay home and help with recovery efforts, his parents, his university and his teammates persuaded him to go.

A decade later, his Masters triumph brought back those memories.

“As the first win by a Japanese and Asian, it was a moment that not only myself but golf fans all over Japan had been waiting for,” said Isao Aoki, chairman of the Japan Golf Tour Organization.

“In the 2011 Masters, Japan was hit with the Great Eastern Earthquake, and when the Japanese people were hurt, his low-amateur honors brought a lot of courage to the devastated people. And this time when the world is hit with the coronavirus, and when so much is restricted in Japan, and people are feeling down, I really think his win brought a lot of hope to everybody.”

Actor Ken Watanabe echoed those sentiments.

“Ten years from the earthquake and tsunami, you are a powerful champion bringing hope to many people,” he tweeted. “From the bottom of my heart, congratulations.”