Thursday, September 23News That Matters

Hideki Matsuyama of Japan Is the First Asian-Born Winner of the Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Hideki Matsuyama’s first swing in the final round of the 85th Masters was an unsightly banana-shaped slice that would have looked familiar on the nerve-racking first tee of any golf course in the world.

Matsuyama, who entered Sunday’s fourth round with a four-shot lead, had not slept much Saturday night, and the walk Sunday afternoon from the practice range to the golf course was more disquieting.

“When I got to the first tee it hit me,” Matsuyama said. “I was really nervous.”

But Matsuyama hunted down his wayward opening drive in the left woods and decisively chose an intrepid course, smashing his ball from a bed of wispy pine straw through a slender gap between two trees. Matsuyama’s caddie, Shota Hayafuji, yelped, “Woo,” which elicited a toothy grin from the typically undemonstrative Matsuyama.

Even though he bogeyed the first hole, the tone for his day was set.

A former teenage golf prodigy in Japan who has long been expected to break through on golf’s biggest stage, Matsuyama, 29, fearlessly charged the daunting Augusta National Golf Club layout on Sunday to build a commanding lead. Even with three unsteady bogeys in the closing holes, he persevered with a gutsy final-round 73 to win the 2021 Masters by one stroke and become the tournament’s first Asian-born champion.

Matsuyama, who finished 10 under par for the tournament, is also the first Japanese man to win a major golf championship. Will Zalatoris finished second, and Xander Schauffele and Jordan Spieth tied for third place at seven under par.

Matsuyama’s groundbreaking victory will make him a national hero in golf-crazy Japan, which has had a rich history of producing world-class male golfers who have come close to winning a major championship over the past several decades but have fallen short. Two Japanese women have won major golf championships. Matsuyama’s breakthrough comes at a time of unrest over racially targeted violence against Asian and Asian-Americans.

The new face of Japanese golf is shy and tight-lipped, so much so that when he was married and had a child in 2017 he kept it hidden from the golf world for seven months. Sunday, after receiving his ceremonial green jacket beside the 18th green, Matsuyama stood motionless, his arms at his sides as news photographers took his picture. Urged to look celebratory, he raised both arms overhead and meekly smiled. Emboldened by the winsome reaction it elicited, Matsuyama widened his grin and jabbed his fists in the air twice.

Led to a news conference, Matsuyama was asked if he was now the greatest golfer in Japanese history.

“I cannot say that I am the greatest,” he answered through an interpreter. “However, I’m the first to win a major, and if that’s the bar, then I set it.”

Matsuyama was more interested in answering what effect his victory might have on young Japanese golfers.

“Up until now, we haven’t had a major champion in Japan, maybe a lot of young golfers thought it was an impossibility,” he said. “Hopefully this will set an example that it is possible and if they set their mind to it, they can do it, too.”

Matsuyama, who had the low score for an amateur at the 2011 Masters, was ranked as high as second in the world four years ago, but suddenly fell into a slump. Until Sunday, he had not won a tournament since 2017 and his ranking had slipped to 25th worldwide.

But after a sparkling 65 in the third round Saturday — he had an eagle and four birdies in his final eight holes — Matsuyama came into the final round with a heathy cushion atop the leaderboard. He was steady at the start on Sunday, even after the opening-hole bogey. He rebounded with a birdie at the second, then reeled off five pars and cruised into the back nine with a comfortable five-stroke lead.

But as often happens on a Masters Sunday, odd, unforeseen things ensued.

At the par-5 15th hole, Matsuyama sized up a second shot in the fairway that was 227 yards from the flagstick. He said he “flushed” a 4-iron but his golf ball rocketed off the green and scooted into the water behind the hole. It was no small misstep, not with his playing partner Schauffele about to birdie his fourth consecutive hole. Matsuyama did not lose his poise or persistence. Taking a penalty stroke, he prudently chipped to the fringe of the green and two-putted for a bogey.

Schauffele was trailing by only two strokes when the duo stepped on the 16th tee. Still chasing the leader, Schauffele said he felt he had to go for another birdie, but his aggressive tee shot was short of the green and trickled into a pond.

Schauffele said the notoriously swirling Augusta National winds double-crossed him, a familiar rejoinder, and likely an accurate one.

“I hit a good shot; it turned out bad,” Schauffele, who made a triple bogey on the hole, said. “I’ll sleep OK tonight — I might be tossing around a little.”

The turn of events made the Masters rookie Zalatoris the closest pursuer to Matsuyama, especially after Zalatoris made a lengthy, downhill par putt on the 18th hole to finish the final round at nine under par, just two strokes behind Matsuyama.

With two holes left to play, Matsuyama hit a brilliant drive in the middle of the 17th fairway, launched a perfect wedge shot to the middle of the green and two-putted for par. At the 18th hole, he hit another perfect drive but his approach shot faded and landed in the greenside bunker to the right of the green. His recovery from the sand stopped six feet from the hole, but two putts still gave him the championship.

The second place finish by Zalatoris, who is in his first year on the PGA Tour, will raise his profile in the golf community considerably, especially in combination with his result at the 2020 United States Open where he tied for sixth. Leaving the 18th hole Sunday, Zalatoris, 24, received a standing ovation from the fans ringing the green.

“Absolute dream,” Zalatoris said. “I’ve been dreaming about it for 20 years.” He added: “I think the fact that I’m frustrated I finished second in my third major says something. Obviously, my two majors as a pro, I finished sixth and runner-up. I know if I keep doing what I doing, I’m going to have a really good chance in the future.”

Matsuyama also received a hearty, long ovation as he left the 18th green on Sunday. When he sank his final putt and the victory was assured, Matsuyama, unlike most golfers in that situation, had no visible reaction.

“I really wasn’t thinking anything,” Matsuyama acknowledged. “Then it started to sink in, the joy of being a Masters champion. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like, but what a thrill and honor it will be for me to take the green jacket back to Japan.”