The 85th Masters Tournament began with the spotlight on one trailblazer and ended with all the attention on another.

Four days after Lee Elder, who in 1975 became the first Black golfer to play in the Masters, served as an Honorary Starter with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, Hideki Matsuyama of Japan became the first player from his country to win the Masters—and a men’s major championship.

“Hopefully, I will be a pioneer and many more will follow,” Matsuyama said through his longtime confidante and interpreter Bob Turner. “It’s thrilling to think there are a lot of youngsters in Japan watching today. Hopefully in five, 10 years, when they get a little older, some of them will be competing on the world stage.”

Matsuyama’s Sunday journey around the Augusta National course was eventful, the four-stroke lead he carried into the final round shrinking and growing and shrinking again before he was able to close out a historic victory.

He came to the 72nd hole on a warm and sunny afternoon with a two-shot advantage over Will Zalatoris, a cushion that allowed the 29-year-old to make a bogey to shoot 73 and finish at 10-under 278, one ahead of the Masters first-timer and three in front of Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele

.The outcome repeated the scenario of last week’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur when Tsubasa Kajitani, 17, of Japan, edged Emilia Migliaccio, a senior at Wake Forest, for the title. Zalatoris, 24, was a star for the Wake Forest men’s golf team before turning professional in 2018.

As Matsuyama walked off the final green toward the scoring area, the putter that had served him well all week in hand, his caddie, Shota Hayafuji, fulfilled a tradition by collecting the yellow pin flag. Hayafuji replaced the flagstick in the cup, took off his cap and bowed. Nearly 7,000 miles away in Matsuyama’s homeland, it was 8 o’clock on Monday morning, rush hour, as an achievement that was decades in the making finally came to pass.

Chako Higuchi, in the 1977 LPGA Championship, and Hinako Shibuno in the 2019 Women’s British Open, had solved the major puzzle on the women’s side, yet it had remained on the table, pieces missing, for Japanese men.

Matsuyama had not been able to sleep as late on Sunday as he had planned, and by the time he stood on the first tee, he admitted feeling nervous under the weight of the lead, the final pairing with Schauffele, the moment. “But I caught myself,” Matsuyama said, “and the plan today was just go out and do my best for 18 holes. That was my thought throughout the day — just keep doing my best. Do my best.” The mantra turned out to be enough.

His lead was quickly whittled to one after an opening bogey and a birdie-birdie start by Zalatoris. But Matsuyama steadied himself and expanded his advantage. Schauffele later praised his fellow competitor as being “robot-like” through more than half of the round.

Matsuyama had turned around his Masters starting on the 11th hole Saturday following a weather delay, when he played the last eight holes in 6-under to shoot 65 and take a large lead after 54 holes. As he walked toward the 11th green Sunday, his advantage was briefly up to six shots.

But that margin dwindled. Matsuyama still led Schauffele, a 27-year-old Californian, by four playing the par-5 15th hole. An eagle on the hole Saturday had been pivotal in Matsuyama’s charge up the leader board, but the result was much different Sunday. Matsuyama’s 4-iron from 227 yards flew the green and bounded into the pond on the 16th hole. His ensuing bogey combined, with Schauffele’s birdie, cut the lead to two.

Schauffele made a crucial mistake on the par-3 16th, his 8-iron coming up short and rolling into the water. The error led to a triple bogey, his first in more than 1,000 holes of major-championship play, and gave Matsuyama breathing room again.

Zalatoris was clutch down the stretch, making birdies on the 15th and 17th and then sinking an 18-footer on No. 18 for par for a 70 and a 9-under total.

Matsuyama had played 93 events since his most recent victory, at the 2017 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club. Once No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, he arrived at this Masters No. 25 having not had a top-10 finish since tying for second at the Houston Open last fall.

“This year has been a struggle,” Matsuyama said. “No top-10s, I haven’t even contended, so I came to Augusta with little or no expectations. But as the week progressed, as I practiced, especially on Wednesday, I felt something again. I found something in my swing. And when that happens, the confidence returns. I started the Tournament with a lot of confidence.”

Matsuyama became the seventh golfer to win a Green Jacket after being Low Amateur, joining Cary Middlecoff, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia.

This was Matsuyama’s 10th Masters, more than Mickelson (eight appearances) had made before Lefty turned 30 and just one fewer than the 11 starts each by Nicklaus, Woods and Rory McIlroy by that age. The first two times Matsuyama played at Augusta National, it was as an amateur in 2011—when he tied for 27th and won the Sterling Silver Cup—and in 2012 after back-to-back victories in the Asia-Pacific Amateur.

It’s thrilling to think there are a lot of youngsters in Japan watching today. Hopefully in five, 10 years, when they get a little older, some of them will be competing on the world stage.

Hideki Matsuyama

He won the 2010 Asia-Pacific title at Kasumigaseki Country Club, site of this year’s Olympics golf competition, to earn a Masters berth the following spring. “I am looking forward to experiencing the huge galleries and putting on those greens,” Matsuyama said a month before his Augusta National debut. “Hopefully, I will also get to hear some cheers.”

The road to a men’s major-championship victory for Japan was a long one. Golfers from Japan debuted in a major during the mid-1930s, with half a dozen players competing in the 1935 U.S. Open and two of them — Toichiro “Torchy” Toda and Seiha “Chick” Chin — coming to the 1936 Masters. (Three Japanese were among 33 international players invited to the inaugural Augusta National Invitation Tournament in 1934, but the trio wasn’t able to make the long trip.)

Masashi “Jumbo” Ozaki, Isao Aoki and Tsuneyuki “Tommy” Nakajima starred in their home country during the 1970s and ’80s, winning a combined 193 tournaments on the Japan Golf Tour. Their games traveled pretty well too, Ozaki and Nakajima earning top-10s in each major and Aoki getting top-10s in three. Aoki, the first Japanese player to win a PGA Tour event, came the closest to winning a big one, finishing second to Jack Nicklaus in the 1980 U.S. Open, the best result by a male Japanese golfer in a major until Matsuyama matched it with a tie for second in the 2017 U.S. Open. Toshi Izawa (tie for fourth in 2001) and Shingo Katayama (tie for fourth in 2009) set the standard at the Masters for Matsuyama to try to eclipse. The only victories were Par 3 Contest triumphs by Aoki in 1975 and 1981. Until 2021, Matsuyama’s best was fifth place in 2015, when he closed with a 66.

Tokyo Broadcasting System brought the Masters action live to Japan this year as it has since 1976. Nakajima, whose best finish at Augusta National was a tie for eighth in 1986, was an analyst on the show, and his voice rose and sank with Matsuyama’s fortunes Sunday. The excitement by Nakajima and host Wataru Ogasawara contrasted sharply with Matsuyama’s even-keeled demeanor.

Even as he was winning a handful of PGA Tour events — the most by a player from Japan — before turning 26, Matsuyama was largely a mystery beyond what he shot and what he won. This was in part because of Matsuyama’s shy and private personality, and that he still was learning English. In the summer of 2017, when he revealed he had gotten married earlier that year and that his wife, Mei, had recently given birth to their daughter, Kanna, even Japanese media who cover his play in great detail had not known about the developments in his life off the course.

“That’s a hard one to sum up,” Australian Adam Scott, a three-time teammate with Matsuyama in the Presidents Cup, said when asked to describe the younger man’s personality. “He’s quite an intense character, even though we don’t really see that, and obsessive about this game.”

This milestone victory will make Matsuyama an even bigger deal in Japan. “I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like,” he said of the reception he will receive back home. “But what a thrill and honor it will be for me to take the Green Jacket back to Japan. And I’m really looking forward to it.”

Matsuyama will be carrying something other than the garment across the Pacific Ocean. “I can’t say I’m the greatest,” he said when asked how winning the Masters will enhance his reputation. “However, I’m the first to win a major, and if that’s the bar, then I’ve set it.”

Player - Hideki Matsuyama
Hideki Matsuyama
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