The burden of being Hideki Matsuyama was lifted at the Masters


AUGUSTA, Ga. — Hideki Matsuyama smiled as he walked from the front nine to the back on Sunday, never looking toward the giant scoreboard to his right. He held a three-shot lead in the Masters, going out in 2 under. Nine holes remained between him and a major championship, the first ever for a Japanese man. A siren went off in the distance. His caddie tossed a few blades of grass into the air and then Matsuyama stroked a drive right down the middle of the 10th fairway. It felt celebratory. What a strange thing, to have walked golf courses since the age of four and suddenly have this walk, so different from the others, carrying the weight of his own dreams, and the people who came before him who made this possible.

After his approach, he walked up to the 10th green and this time he looked to his left in the direction of another enormous scoreboard. What stared back at him was like some schoolboy’s fantasy. He now led the Masters by five strokes, with his opponents slipping away. At that moment, it started to feel like a coronation walk. The birds chirped loudly in the trees and he two-putted for par. He smiled talking to his caddie and then laughed a little. Charles Kikomoto from Denver, following the final pairing with his father, watched Matsuyama walk down into Amen Corner.

“For Japan, baby!” he yelled.

Back home Matsuyama is obsessed over to the degree that he and his wife kept both their marriage and the birth of their child from the rabid Japanese press. Reporters write about every little thing, including for instance the weight he’s gained since moving to America. It’s constant and oppressive but not a surprise. He carries an enormous burden as the best male Japanese golfer, because of the vital and complex importance the sport has carried in the country since the end of World War II. This burden has proven too much for him at times. When he made five bogeys coming home with a chance to win the 2017 PGA Championship, he broke down and wept on Japanese television after the round.

His defense against the attention, and how it makes him feel, is to be as private and withdrawn as possible. Friends call him shy. His favorite player growing up was Tiger Woods. When he’s in America, he enjoys Outback Steakhouse. He really likes to bowl and fish. He was born in 1992 at the beginning of what is known in Japan as The Lost Decade, when the country’s booming economy collapsed.

Few things symbolized the gilded national wealth and confidence of the 1980s like the blooming of golf clubs. The average price to join grew 500 percent between 1982 and 1989, according to the South China Morning Post, and then another 190 percent in 1989 alone. A membership then cost as much as $3 million, and with the Nikkei rolling at 39,000, people paid it. What the hell, it’s just money. Three years later, the year Hideki was born, the Nikkei was at 17,000 and in some ways the Japanese economy is still recovering. The cultural memory of this era is an important part of today’s national identity. Memory is an essential part of daily life. Most homes include shrines where prayers are offered not to a deity but to photographs of ancestors. The line between the past and the present is malleable, blurred and ever-present. Hideki walked that line Sunday afternoon.

TWO JAPANESE MEN rushed away from the 11th tee after Matsuyama hit his drive, hurrying up to see the second shot, and they talked about a thousand miles an hour in excited Japanese. The only English word in that entire conversation was “Amen.”

They were part of a growing swell of people watching every shot. The three most famous holes at Augusta National are numbers 11, 12 and 13, and collectively they are known as Amen Corner. Out on the far edge of the course, this is often where tournaments are won and lost. Matsuyama calmly ate a banana as he walked to his ball, which sitting in a patch of pine straw on the left side of the fairway. When he knocked it on the green, the crowd let out an audible “wow.”

Retired NFL quarterback Peyton Manning stood with friends in the gallery and marveled at the scrutiny Matsuyama faces, and how hard it must be to keep his game together under such pressure, and with the looming possibility of such shame. The sun came out bright and hot as he stood over his putt on 11. He made that, too, another par.

He led by five with seven holes to go.

Matsuyama hit his tee shot over No. 12 into the sand and made bogey.

He and Xander Schauffele both birdied No. 13 and Maysuyama’s lead remained at five. Some of the gallery started to head back toward the clubhouse.

“That about does it,” one man said.

As the players moved on to the 14th tee, a Japanese news photographer took a picture of two Japanese fans who were following the group around. As the camera clicked a few times, the two men grinned with Rae’s Creek and Amen Corner in the background, a memento that will surely hang and slowly fade on family walls for generations to come, an heirloom in its first seconds of existence. They were celebrating one of the most important days in the history of Japanese golf.

IN THE WAY that Hideki Matsuyama was born into a staggering Japan, so, too, was his father. Mikio Matsuyama came into the world less than a decade after the end of World War II, in 1954, a time when both privation and shame still shaped life in Japan. They had started a war and had not only lost but had sacrificed a generation and seen cities turned to ash. Many books have been written about this era but the simplistic through line of all of them is that this was a nation struggling to stand up again. Enter golf.

When Mikio was 3 years old, in 1957, the Canada Cup was held at the Kasumigaseki Country Club. An old, prestigious place, it had been seized by General MacArthur and only returned to the members in 1952 when the American occupying authorities finally left.

A field of great golfers descended on the island, including Gary Player, Jimmy Demaret and Sam Snead. The war-damaged roads from the hotels to the club still hadn’t been fixed. The course itself, regularly played by Americans during occupation, looked good. The Japanese team of Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono beat Demaret and Snead by nine strokes. Nakamura also won the individual title. A year later the two national heroes became the first post-war Japanese players to compete in the Masters.

Japan stopped for the Canada Cup in a way that’s difficult for modern consumers of fragmented media to imagine. These deep feelings of anxiety followed by chest-swelling pride had a little to do with golf and a lot to do with the men their Nakamura and Ono had defeated. A whole country lived in their swings and when it was over, the nation itself had beaten the Americans. This was the big bang of modern golf in Japan. Besides the constant television coverage, and the breathless words from the nation’s 11 daily sports newspapers, and the bootlegged translations of Ben Hogan’s instructional book that started appearing in stores within a week of the Canada Cup, perhaps the greatest immediate result was the explosion of driving ranges. In and around Tokyo alone, Sports Illustrated’s Herbert Warren Wind reported, 52 driving ranges had opened. He even found one in the Ginza nightlife district on the ground floor of a bar he and some friends were trying to find.

He wrote:

The Ginza is an incredible place — a grid of narrow lanes, each of them packed shoulder to shoulder on both sides with bistros, cabarets, supper clubs, penny arcades, beer joints, coffee shops and dance halls, many of these structures so advanced in design and decor as to give the Ginza something of the feeling of a world fair, all of them featuring eye-popping neon and electric signs and some very watchable girls to match. We turned a corner out of one of these fluorescent lanes into a somewhat wider and quieter avenue. Across the street, according to the comparatively hushed sign in front, stood the Fairway Café. The café, it turned out, was situated on the second floor. The room below it was literally on the ground floor, there being no board flooring. Some of the earth had been shoveled up and packed into four small tees, and on them four golfers, shirt-sleeved and wearing that look of total divorcement from all outside life which is common to the dedicated, were whanging golf balls off mats into canvas-backed netting hung against the opposite wall. In this narrow arena the netting was set so close to the tees that the player’s clubhead swept within two yards of the nets on his follow-through: the thud of the ball against the canvas occurred practically at the same moment as the click of contact.

At one of the nation’s many driving ranges, Ocean Golf, is where 4-year-old Hideki started playing golf with his father right in the teeth of that lost decade. The facility is tucked next to a highway and a rising landscape with terraced farms on the slopes. Right away his talent showed and eventually when he reached middle school his family sent him to a boarding school where he could pursue golf with a rigid, militaristic intensity. His young life became dominated by a single-minded pursuit.

Hideki grew up to become the best male golfer in the nation, wealthy and famous and respected, the kind of person invited by the Prime Minister to play golf with visiting American presidents. The kind of player who would chase and finally win a major championship. His father watched his son’s rise and seemed to understand that he could no longer help him, not where he was going, but he could go back to the beginning, to try and help other kids like his son.

Eight years ago Hideki turned into a golf professional and, in way, his father did, too. Mikio Matsuyama bought the Ocean Golf driving range. At the opening ceremony he announced that the old place would have a new name, Hideki Golf Garden. He called the range a place of memories.

“Since his childhood he came here together with me,” Mikio said at the time, “clutching his club, practicing every day, and receiving the warm encouragements of the people he met there. He grew up passing through this place, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a place that raised Hideki. And so, my gratitude alone isn’t enough to repay the people who have warmly cheered on Hideki since he was a child. From now on, in order to live up to the feelings of those people, I’m renewing my determination to promote golf and the growth of junior golfing however I can.”

THE CORONATION WALK fell to pieces in the next three holes. It’s not easy carrying the ghosts of Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono, and the dedication of his father, and the belief of an entire island who have been longing for tournament like this since that 1957 Canada Cup. You could feel the tension rising. That energy is a living thing in a big tournament. Schauffele had birdied 12 and 13 in Amen Corner, and he birdied 14 and 15, too. Feeling the pressure, Matsuyama hit an aggressive 4-iron approach into number 15. He’d measured 227 yards to the pin. Way long, it skidded into the water. A segment of the crowd cheered when the ball slashed.

“Let’s go Xander!” someone shouted.

Jordan Spieth birdied No. 17 to move to 8-under and the crowd in the distance roared. The tournament was tightening. Matsuyama stood over his dropped ball, in the lengthening shadows of three pine trees, and he hit his chip fat, coming up short of the green. His next putt was short, too, the frayed nerves on full display. He got a bogey and his five-shot lead had been whittled down to two.

Hideki walked off alone and stood by himself in between the green and the 16th tee.

The crowd at 16 grew. A sudden wind started buffetting around the hole, sending two brownie or cookie wrappers blowing along on the otherwise perfect grass. Someone quickly grabbed them. This was the first real wind of the back nine, as the players looked across the water and the green.

Schauffele hit his in the water.

After a triple bogey, his challenge for the title was finished. It felt like an exhale. Matsuyama looked a lot more tense than he did smiling and laughing just a few hours earlier. Seventeen came and went without incident, another par for both golfers. He’d survived the run. That left one hole to go, and air thick with all the unspoken meaning that makes something as familiar as a golf club feel alien and strange. His nerves had been going all round. They’d been his opponent as much as other golfers or the course, and what are nerves but the physical manifestation of the unspoken things that grind away inside. Matsuyama stood in the long shadows pointing towards the tee at No. 18, the end of day upon him and his competitors, and he sighed.

THE BIGGEST MOMENTS in life are, of course, made up of lots of simple actions. Hideki Matsuyama took 17 steps from the 17th green to the final tee box of the Masters. He slipped on his glove and took off his driver cover. He took a swig from his water bottle. He put the tee in the ground. It didn’t look right. He moved it and gently placed the ball on it. All things he’s done countless times in the last two and a half decades. He took one practice swing, stepped back to look out at the hole, and then stepped up to the ball. A minute and 46 seconds after he walked onto the tee box, he hit the most important drive of his life, and the most important golf shot ever hit by a Japanese man. He striped it down the middle.

“That is perfect!” a fan yelled.

Now Matsuyama seemed to understand.

He tipped his cap to the growing crowd lining the fairway. The gallery behind the last green was at least 32 people deep, everyone pressed together, straining to see. Matsuyama three-putted, his third bogey in the brutal final four holes. He’d made it through, Masters champion by one stroke, and the noise rose up in a great clamor around him. He stood behind the green awash in the moment. His lip trembled. His eyes went glassy and he strode off into a tunnel of fans, all with valedictory cheers and outstretched hands, taking the first steps into the rest of his life. The sun was just rising in Japan.

His press conference started within minutes of his father’s driving range opening for the day, and he talked about the children back in Japan who would one day “follow in his footsteps,” as he put it, just as he followed the long uninterrupted line of golfers stretching back to Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono. Looking far into the future, he imagined a time when one of those kids watching the morning news might make it all the way to the pros, maybe even to a place like Augusta.

“They’re gonna have to compete against me,” he said.

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