It’s not high fashion, but the brilliant green jacket Hideki Matsuyama donned last weekend after winning the 85th Masters golf tournament is one of the most singular pieces of clothing in the world. It is given only to the winner of that championship, and identifies the wearer as the member of an elite club.
His victory was the first ever for a Japanese man in a major golf championship, and with it Matsuyama claimed his place in the pantheon of Japanese sports heroes. There will continue to be the richly deserved celebrations and hopefully it will mark a takeoff rather than a capstone in his career.
It was a victory some thought overdue. Many anticipated Matsuyama would claim that jacket after he was the low amateur at the 2011 Masters and finished 27th in that tournament. After he turned professional in 2013, that looked possible, if not likely.
A torrid performance between 2014 and 2017, winning five PGA Tour events and becoming the No. 2 ranked player in the world — the highest ever for a Japanese male golfer — validated those expectations. But his game fell off, perhaps a victim of the weight of those hopes, and he would not win another tournament until last weekend, his 15th career victory.
His play on Saturday was masterful. He tamed the famous Augusta National Golf Course with a blistering 7 under par 65, which gave him the cushion he needed to eke out a 1-stroke victory on Sunday, after a lackluster final round. Matsuyama struggled through the back nine that day, but he retained his composure and did not panic as the competition closed in. The longtime pro remained steady when it counted, and his playing partner, Xander Schauffele, who started the day in contention for the title, collapsed instead.
Although he would be uncomfortable to admit it, his win elevates Matsuyama over his Japanese predecessors on the U.S. tour: Isao Aoki, Tommy Nakajima, Toshimitsu Izawa, Shigeki Maruyama, Shingo Katayama and the Ozaki brothers, Masashi (Jumbo), Tateo (Jet) and Naomichi (Joe). They all challenged but none would ever claim a major title — although Aoki forced Jack Nicklaus to set a U.S. Open scoring record in 1980 to defeat him on the way to that victory.
Japanese women have fared better. In 1977, Hisako Higuchi became the first woman from Japan to win a major title at the LPGA Championship. Two years ago, Hinako Shibuno won the 2019 Women’s British Open in her first major tournament appearance. And then there is Tsubasa Kajitani, who won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur at the beginning of this month, finishing 1 over par after three days, prevailing in a sudden death playoff on the first hole. Kajitani, who ranked No. 26 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and entering the final round tied for fifth place, was the first Japanese ever to win at Augusta.
Matsuyama’s victory comes at a good moment for Japan. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga applauded the victory, saying it “gave courage to and deeply moved people throughout Japan.” It is a reason to celebrate amidst the gloom of the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty that has engulfed the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.
In fact, Matsuyama now bears the hopes of the nation in that event. The host venue for golf in those games is the Kasumigaseki Country Club, the course where Matsuyama won the Asia Pacific Amateur title in 2010.
It’s a heavy burden for a retiring young man who has avoided the limelight and has instead worked assiduously on his game. Matsuyama acknowledged the pressure, confessing that he welcomed the limits imposed by the COVID-19 outbreak because it reduced the media crush that engulfs any leading Japanese competitor in a global tournament. “Being in front of the media is still difficult,” he explained, and “with fewer media, it’s been a lot less stressful for me, and I’ve enjoyed this week.”
The weight is oppressive, especially for someone like Matsuyama who is unfailingly polite and obliging. Japan’s interest in golf at times approximates obsession. The country has the second-largest number of golfers and courses in the world.
A Japanese golfer first competed in the Masters in 1936, the third year of the tournament. Since 1968, at least one Japanese golfer has teed off on Thursday to start the competition. For Andy Yamanaka, secretary general of the Japan Golf Association, Matsuyama’s victory was a dream come true.
In recent years, a slowing economy, the expense of an afternoon on a course and the sport’s association with business executives dampened its appeal. Still, there has been a resurgence in its popularity during a pandemic that has encouraged outdoor activities that feature social distancing.
Mindful of the impact of his win, Matsuyama said that “With me doing it, hopefully it will set an example for (the youth of Japan) that it’s possible.” And hopefully, Japan will celebrate his win and allow the newly crowned Masters champion to enjoy his victory in his own quiet way as well. Shielded from the crushing weight of his nation’s expectations, this week’s win may prove to be the beginning of his resurgence rather than the capstone of a career.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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