AUGUSTA, Ga. — At the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, after Japan’s Hideki Matsuyma led at the turn and then bogeyed five of the final nine holes to finish in a tie for fifth, he buried his head in his hands and cried after an interview with a Japanese reporter.
Even at the age of 25, Matsuyama felt the burden of trying to become the first male golfer from his country to win a major championship.
Matsuyama carries that weight no more.
Matsuyama, 29, is the first player from an Asian country to win the Masters and the second to win a major; the first was South Korea’s Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship.
In a Masters without five-time champion Tiger Woods, who is recovering from serious injuries suffered in a February car wreck, and that was missing defending champion Dustin Johnson and stars Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka after the 36-hole cut, one of the sport’s most anonymous and private players used his stellar iron play and surprising putting prowess to capture the green jacket.
After Matsuyama blistered Augusta National’s second nine with a 6-under 30 in the third round to carry a 4-shot lead into Sunday, his first anxious moment came on the first tee, when he pushed his tee shot into the trees and made bogey.
Matsuyama, the 25th-ranked player in the world, quickly steadied himself with a birdie on the par-5 second hole. By the sixth hole, just one player was within 4 shots of him — that was Will Zalatoris, playing in his first Masters. Matsuyama built a 5-shot lead with consecutive birdies on Nos. 8 and 9.
Later, he hit his second shot into the water on the par-5 15th. His lead shrunk to two shots with three to play. But he steadied himself to get the job done.
It is Matsuyama’s second trip to Augusta National’s Butler Cabin, where the green jacket is first presented to the winner. A decade ago, after he won the inaugural Asia-Pacific Amateur in 2010, he finished as the low amateur at the 2011 Masters. He received the Silver Cup while sitting next to champion Charl Schwartzel.
That dramatic breakthrough came less than a month after a devastating earthquake, the strongest recorded in Japan’s history, triggered a tsunami with waves up to 132 feet. The magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred undersea about 81 miles east of Matsuyama’s adopted hometown of Sendai, on the northern part of the island of Honshu.
Matsuyama, 19 at the time, was training in Australia when the earthquake and tsunami hit. It left 450,000 people homeless, killed 19,300 and destroyed an estimated 120,000 buildings. It also caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactors.
When Matsuyma returned home, he found his dormitory at Tohoku Fukushi University in ruins. He couldn’t contact his family and friends for weeks and struggled to find food to eat. He nearly declined that first Masters invitation to help with relief efforts.
“Literally, thousands of lives have been lost, and there are still a lot of people missing,” Matsuyama said through an interpreter in 2011. “Infrastructure is still in the recovery process and a lot of the inhabitants are forced to live in emergency relief places. I am from the Tohoku region, and knowing such a hard situation back home, I am not sure if I should play at the Masters even at this very moment. Still, I have decided to play. I would like to do my best to provide the Japanese people with encouragement.””
In his first appearance as an amateur at Augusta National, he carded a 4-under 68 in the third round en route to finishing in a tie for 27th.
Matsuyama said his performance “was a direct effect of the people of Japan in the Sendai area rooting for me and encouraging me.”
“I felt their spirits throughout the event,” he said.
Matsuyama is one of the most revered athletes in a country in which baseball and sumo wrestling are more popular than golf. He was taught the game by his father, who owns a driving range. In 2011, he beat Schwartezl and other pros as an amateur in the Taiheiyo Masters with an eagle on the final hole. Two years later, he won four events on the Japan Golf Tour and became the first rookie to claim the tour’s money title.
Matsuyama’s victory on Sunday at the Masters was his sixth since qualifying for the PGA Tour in 2014.
“He’s a bit like a Tiger Woods [is] to the rest of the world, Hideki in Japan,” said Adam Scott, who in 2013 became the first Australian to win the Masters.
Little is known about Matsuyama’s personal life — and that’s the way he likes it. In August 2017, a couple of weeks after his back-nine meltdown at the PGA Championship, Matsuyama’s management company unexpectedly announced that he had married eight months earlier. His wife, Mei, gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Kanna, in July 2017.
“As far as the family and privacy, no one really asked me if I was married, so I didn’t have to answer that question,” Matsuyama said.
Matsuyama uses an interpreter during interviews with English-speaking reporters and is reserved. During Saturday’s rain delay of more than an hour, while other players huddled and chatted in Augusta National’s clubhouse and caddie shack, Matsuyama remained in his car playing games on his phone.
“I think [it’s] partly his personality,” Scott said. “I think he’s really living in his own world a bit, and partly the language barrier he has over here. I think he probably knows a little more English than he lets on, but it’s easy for him to kind of put the blinkers on and really not get distracted by much noise.”
During the past few seasons, about 20 reporters from Japanese media outlets have routinely followed Matsuyama to every PGA Tour event. Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, there were only a handful at the Masters this week. Matsuyama seemed to enjoy being out of the spotlight for a change.
“When I was there for the Zozo [Championship in Chiba, Japan] last year, the people watching him and Tiger, it was like a major,” said Mexico’s Abraham Ancer. “So for him to get this W, it’s huge for Japan. I had no idea how big the following was of golf down there, and it was amazing. Had a great time over there, and it would mean the world I’m sure for all the Japanese people for him to win.”
Japan has been waiting at least 85 years for a major winner in men’s golf. The country sent its first golfer to the Masters in 1936, the third year of its existence, when Chick Chin finished in a tie for 20th. Starting in 1968, there has been at least one Japanese golfer in every edition of the Masters.
Until Sunday, none of them had ever slipped on a green jacket.
“He’s the one they’ve been waiting for,” Scott once said.
And now, he and Japan wait no more.