AUGUSTA (Georgia): The pressure was even more than Hideki Matsuyama could have imagined when he stood on the first tee on Sunday at Augusta National. So was the emotion when he walked off the 18th green as the first Masters champion from golf-mad Japan.
His arms securely inside the sleeves of the green jacket, he thrust them in the air. Ten years after he made a sterling debut as the best amateur at the Masters, the 29-year-old Matsuyama claimed the ultimate prize and took his place in history.
Whether he’s Japan’s greatest player is not his concern. “However, I’m the first to win a major,” he said through his interpreter. “And if that’s the bar, then I’ve set it.”
Staked to a four-shot lead, the nerves stayed with Matsuyama from the time he hit his opening tee shot into the trees to back-to-back birdies that led to a six-shot lead to a few nervous moments at the end when Xander Schauffele made a late run at him.
Only when he belted his drive down the 18th fairway and twirled the club in his hands could he feel this victory was in hand. He played so well for so long that three bogeys over the last four holes made this Masters look closer than it was.
He closed with a one-over 73 for a one-shot victory over Masters rookie Will Zalatoris (70).
Schauffele ran off four straight birdies to get within two shots with three holes to play, only to hit 8-iron into the water on the par-3 16th for a triple bogey that ended his hopes. He shot a 72 with a triple bogey and a double bogey on his card and tied for third with Jordan Spieth (70) three shots back of Matsuyama.
“Man, he was something else. He played like a winner needs to play,” Schauffele said. “Sixteen, I really would have loved to have put more pressure on him there, but basically gave him the tournament at that point.”
Then his thoughts turned to the significance of what Matsuyama achieved. Schauffele’s mother was raised in Japan and his grandparents still live there.
“No one really wants to talk about how much pressure is on him,” Schauffele said. “You look at the media that follows him. You look at what he’s done in his career. “He’s a top-ranked player with a ton of pressure on him, and thats the hardest way to play. He’s able to do it.”
And he did it.
The emotion for a player who says so little was never more evident. Moments before Dustin Johnson helped him into the green jacket, Matsuyama needed no interpreter in Butler Cabin when he said in English, “I’m really happy”.
So masterful was this performance that Matsuyama stretched his lead to six shots on the back nine until a few moments of drama. With a four-shot lead, he went for the green in two on the par-5 15th and it bounded hard off the back slope and into the pond on the 16th hole.
Matsuyama did well to walk away with bogey, and with Schauffele making a fourth straight birdie, the lead was down to two shots. And then it was over.
Schauffele was in the water. Matsuyama made a safe par on the 17th and ripped one down the middle of the 18th fairway. He made bogey from the bunker to finish at 10-under 278, soaking in the moment with a few thousand spectators on their feet to celebrate a career-changing moment.
Spieth has competed in Japan and has played alongside Matsuyama on his home turf. He could relate to having a four-shot lead, which Spieth had when he won the Masters in 2015. He can’t relate to the expectations of an entire country.
“He’s got a lot of pressure on himself,” Spieth said. “I remember the feeling on a four-shot lead, and he’s got Japan on his back and maybe Asia on his back. I can’t imagine how that was trying to sleep on that, even with somebody who’s had so much success.”
Matsuyama won for the 15th time worldwide, and it was his sixth PGA Tour title. He had gone 93 tournaments without winning, the longest drought for a Masters champion since 1987, and went to 14th in the world.
He becomes the second man from an Asian country to win a major. Y.E. Yang of South Korea won the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine over Tiger Woods.
“Making Japan proud Hideki,” five-times Masters champion Woods, who is home recovering from serious leg injuries suffered in a February car crash, wrote on Twitter. “Congratulations on such a huge accomplishment for you and your country. This historical @TheMasters win will impact the entire golf world.”
Speaking to reporters on Monday morning in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called Matsuyama’s historic win“wonderful” and a source of pride and courage for the Japanese people during the difficulties posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
He’s also a graduate of a university in Tohoku,” Suga said, referring to the northeastern region of Japan devastated by the massive earthquake and tsunami 10 years ago.“[His win] has also provided a big boost to the recovery from the disasters.”
The victory by Matsuyama ended Zalatoris’ impressive bid to become the first Masters debutant to win a Green Jacket since Fuzzy Zoeller accomplished the feat in 1979. “It was a fun week,” Zalatoris said.“I know I can play with the best players in the world.”
World number three Jon Rahm, whose wife gave birth to their first child last weekend, carded the day’s low round, a six-under-par 66, vaulting him into a share of fifth place.
Englishman Justin Rose (74), who held the outright lead after the first and second rounds, and Australian Marc Leishman (73) also started the day four shots back of Matsuyama but fell out of contention before they reached the turn.
Matsuyama had made a shaky start with a bogey at the first hole that cut his lead to one stroke but made three birdies before the turn, including at both par-fives, to restore control.
Matsuyama bogeyed the 12th where he failed to get up and down from a back bunker but tapped in for birdie at the par-five 13th and was looking set for a comfortable finish.
But Matsuyama said he never allowed himself to think the Green Jacket was his until his tee shot at the par-four 18th final hole found the fairway. “My nerves really didn’t start on the second nine,” said Matsuyama.“It was right from the start today and right to the very last putt.”
He is the first winner with a final round over par since Trevor Immelman in 2008. No matter. Matsuyama is the Masters champion, a major that defines his elite status in the game and gives Japan the biggest week it has ever had in April.
It started a week ago Saturday when Tsubasa Kajitani won the second Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Matsuyama wasnt around to see it, but he was well aware of it. All he wanted was to follow her path and made Japan proud.
His play spoke volumes. So did his reaction.