Matsuyama’s crowning glory at Augusta always seemed his destiny

Japanese golfer now set to be star of Olympic golf tournament on home turf

Hideki Matsuyama hugs his caddie Shota Hayafuji on the 18th green after winning the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday. Photograph: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images

Hideki Matsuyama hugs his caddie Shota Hayafuji on the 18th green after winning the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday. Photograph: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images

 

With Hideki Matsuyama, it was never a case of if but, rather, when. That his breakthrough Major win came in the Masters tournament, after an apprenticeship which had seen him record career top-five finishes in all of the Majors before finally conquering Augusta National, finally enabled him to claim the emperor clothing that always seemed his destiny.

If there was a kind of spiritualism in the way his caddie and friend Shota Hayafuji replaced the flagless pin into the 18th hole, before respectfully bowing back down the fairway to the course, that act of respect was performed in tranquillity far from the madding crowds. The irony is that Matsuyama, already adored by golf fans in the Land of the Rising Sun, will likely have little or no peace going forward as he negotiates the next phase of his career.

For sure, golf at the Olympics has got more relevant in Matsuyama’s coronation as Masters champion. As Adam Scott, who has got to know the Japanese player well through being team-mates in the Presidents Cup, observed: “He’s a bit like Tiger Woods to the rest of the world, Hideki in Japan. ”

“I’m really looking forward to the Olympic Games in Tokyo, if I am on the team, and maybe it looks like I will be. I’ll do my best to represent my country, and hopefully I’ll play well,” said Matsuyama from the city of Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku. In current qualifying, he is actually guaranteed to be one of the two Japanese players to be playing. He’ll be there.

That route to becoming a Major champion has often been a rocky one, certainly not straightforward; and, indeed, given he hadn’t won anywhere since 2017, doubts had grown about his ability to close the deal.

“Everyone was hoping and thought he was going to win one a long time ago, and he kind of lost a little bit of form,” said Xander Schauffele, who played in the last pairing with Matsuyama on Sunday. “I know his team relatively well, and he kept working hard through it all. So, big kudos to him.”

Schauffele added: “No one really wants to talk about how much pressure is on him. 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 that’s the hardest way to play.”

Hideki Matsuyama of Japan celebrates during the green jacket ceremony after winning the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Hideki Matsuyama of Japan celebrates during the green jacket ceremony after winning the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Matsuyama – normally followed by a battalion of photographers wherever he plays, but ironically missing so many of those in performing his greatest act at Augusta where limited on-site accreditation was enforced due to Covid-19 – had laid down a marker of his potential at the Majors on a number of occasions, with previous best finishes of tied-6th at the Open (2013), tied-4th at the US PGA (2016), tied-2nd at the US Open (2017) and tied-5th at the Masters (2015).

Yet, for all of that big-time experience in a player of just 29 years of age, there had been little to indicate on his season’s form that he was finally ready to make the big step. Of his 10 tournaments prior to the Masters, Matsuyama’s best finish was a tied-15th in the limited field WGC-Workday Championship and he had missed the cut twice, including at The Players.

“It has been a struggle recently. This year, no top-10s, haven’t even contended. So I came to Augusta with little or no expectations. But as the week progressed, as I practice, especially on Wednesday, I felt something again. I found something in my swing. And when that happens, the confidence returns,” explained Matsuyama of his turnaround in form.

Although he has lived much of his sporting life with the expectation from the Japanese fan base that he would deliver one of golf’s greatest prizes, the flip side is that Matsuyama’s work ethic had him seeking to deliver on his own expectations too. “He’s quite an intense character, actually, even though we don’t really see that. I mean, [he’s] obsessive about his game,” said Scott.

Matsuyama’s achievement in becoming the first Japanese men’s player to win a Major will only multiply the rock-star status he already received at home, although the Olympics will likely mark the first time that his supporters will get to pay homage. Maybe even as the one to light the flame.

Growing up, Matsuyama’s own sporting heroes were not golfers but baseball players – Darvish, Ohtani, Maeda were name checked – but he acknowledged that his history-making deeds would entice a new generation to the sport. “Hopefully now others will be inspired for what happened, [to] follow in my footsteps.”

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