Hideki Matsuyama made history last spring when he won the Masters, put on the iconic green jacket and became the first Japanese man to claim a major golf championships.
And while the humble 29-year-old looks to burnish his legacy by becoming just the fourth player to win back-to-back Masters titles, he wants other players from his homeland to help him lift Japanese golf to new heights.
So far, only Jack Nicklaus in 1966, Nick Faldo in 1990 and Tiger Woods in 2002 have successfully defended Masters titles.
“It’s no easy task to achieve,” Matsuyama told Kyodo News recently. “But I’m the only one with the privilege of challenging for it (this time). I want to absorb (that reality).
“My family has been telling me to just win another one, as if it’s easy to do. But I understand winning again would mean I am able to do all the things I wasn’t able to do this time (because of COVID restrictions) like show my friends the Masters green jacket.”
The Ehime Prefecture native endured a nail-biting final round at Augusta National Golf Club on April 11, 2021, after his four-stroke third-round lead was cut to one.
Xander Schauffele of the United States first pushed him to the edge with four straight birdies before dropping out of contention with a 16th-hole triple bogey.
Matsuyama himself bogeyed three of the final four holes, including the 18th when he landed in a bunker and had two putts to win the title in his 10th appearance at the tournament.
“To be honest, I thought it couldn’t be helped if I didn’t win,” he said.
“But I wanted to break the ominous Masters curse before it spread to other Japanese golfers so they won’t have to experience the anguish I felt (in pursuing that first victory in a major). So I buckled down.”
By sinking the decisive putt, Matsuyama finished one shot ahead of American rookie Will Zalatoris to secure the monumental win.
The victory sparked a rapturous reaction back home and an emotional response from 11-time Masters participant Tsuneyuki Nakajima, who finished eighth in 1986.
“Until then, not many people had told me they were moved by my game,” Matsuyama said. “On my flight back home (to Japan), I remembered Mr. Nakajima crying while commentating on TV, and I got teary.”
Matsuyama played down the notion that having a first major win under his belt will make it easier to do well in future tournaments.
“That won’t be the case,” he said. “The course setup and the pressure going in are different for each. I’m looking forward to how I’ll react to those circumstances.”
He is also looking forward to something he can control — the Masters champions dinner. There, past Masters champions gather on the eve of the tournament with the reigning champion getting to select the menu.
“A lot of people say they like sushi, so I’d like something representative of Japan, sushi and wagyu beef,” Matsuyama said.
There were high hopes that Matsuyama would follow his Masters win with a Tokyo Olympic gold medal in the summer, but it wasn’t to be.
Under the scorching sun at Kasumigaseki Country Club, he finished at 15-under, three strokes back of the winner, Schauffele, before getting knocked out in the seven-way playoff for the bronze medal to finish fourth.
“I had heat stroke and have almost no memory of the first day’s back nine,” he said. “I had to have water poured over my head to keep myself right.
“With golf getting so much attention after I won the Masters, I couldn’t drop out just because I was feeling sluggish. I really wanted a medal and felt it was so important to get one, but that was the best I could do. I was that desperate.”
Mone Inami’s women’s silver gave Japan its first Olympic medal in golf. However, Japanese men are not without hope and Matsuyama wants his younger countrymen to accomplish the task.
“When people say only Hideki can do it, some part of me believes it’s true, but I want to leave that to others,” he said. “I achieved one goal in winning a major so I want to hand that (Olympic) challenge to the younger generation.”
That group includes Takumi Kanaya and Keita Nakajima, who both won on the Japanese tour as amateurs. The former won the Mark H. McCormack Medal in 2020, presented annually to the World Amateur Golf Ranking leader, and Nakajima claimed it in 2021.
Matsuyama hopes both can forge their own paths to success.
“I don’t want them to follow in my footsteps,” he said. “I’m me and they are who they are. I hope they go their own way, and never forget that the fans are behind them,” he said.
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