'If they set their mind to it, they can do it'Hideki Matsuyama’s Masters win will inspire his homeland
April 11, 2021
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Hideki Matsuyama’s best shots on the PGA TOUR
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Hideki Matsuyama had finally won the tournament he’d dreamed about since he was a boy, the one that proved to him a decade ago that he could compete against the best players in the world. His victory speech from Augusta National’s practice green didn’t last much longer than his famously methodical backswing, though.
Dustin Johnson, who slipped the Green Jacket onto Matsuyama’s shoulders, endeared himself to fans when he shed tears after his win last year, revealing a new side of his stoic demeanor. Matsuyama, the shy Japanese star, is reticent to speak about himself in any tongue, however.
His speech was two sentences. He said in Japanese that he was honored to win and thanked the patrons for cheering him on. Then he stepped away from the podium. Matsuyama’s translator, Bob Turner, quickly grabbed him and reminded the champion to thank the club’s membership, the same people who created the tournament that led to his first Masters invitation, as well.
“I’d like to especially thank the members of Augusta National Golf Club," he said for Turner to translate. He ended his speech with some English of his own, saying, "Thank you,” before thrusting both arms into the air victoriously and stepping away a second time.
Matsuyama prefers to let his clubs do the talking. They spoke loudly Sunday, when he became the first man from his country to win a major championship.
After starting Sunday with a four-shot lead, his final-round 73 was good enough for a one-stroke victory over Will Zalatoris, the 24-year-old who was making his Masters debut just months after competing on the Korn Ferry Tour.
Matsuyama’s victory came on the 10-year anniversary of his Masters debut, which he earned by winning the second Asia-Pacific Amateur. He almost didn’t make it to Augusta National after tragedy struck his homeland a month before the 2011 Masters. A magnitude-9 earthquake and the ensuing tsunami killed nearly 20,000 people. Matsuyama returned from a training session in Australia to find the area around his school, Tohoku Fukushi University, devastated.
“He thought seriously about not playing, but everyone encouraged him to go and play for Japan,” Turner said Sunday. “And here we are today.”
Matsuyama, then a 19-year-old amateur, performed admirably after arriving in Augusta, even though his mind was on his friends and family back home. He won low amateur honors and finished in the top 30, thanks in large part to a third-round 68. He remembers Steve Stricker, then a top-10 player in the world, congratulating him as he walked off the 18th green. His experience at Augusta was a catalyst for his career.
“Playing in the Masters made me want to come back every year, and in order to do that I knew I had to practice more,” Matsuyama once said. “All my practice sessions had that one goal in mind.”
He’ll never need to worry about another Masters invitation. His victory earned him a lifetime exemption and a permanent Tuesday appointment at the Champions Dinner.
His victory means more than a permanent April appointment in his calendar, however. He inspired a country that is known for its zeal for golf.
Matsuyama remembers watching Tiger Woods’ famous chip-in on Augusta National’s 16th hole early on a Monday morning in Japan in 2005. He was 13 years old. This year, Japan awoke to pictures of one of their own donning the Green Jacket. Undoubtedly, a new generation of Japanese golfers will look up to Matsuyama, especially when he returns to play the Tokyo Olympics later this year.
Making Japan proud Hideki. Congratulations on such a huge accomplishment for you and your country. This historical @TheMasters win will impact the entire golf world.— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) April 11, 2021
“Hopefully that will set an example for them that it is possible,” Matsuyama said about winning a major, “and that, if they set their mind to it, they can do it, too.”
Adam Scott, who has played with Matsuyama in Japan, described the Japanese galleries as “fanatical.” Scott compared it to the 2008 U.S. Open, when he played alongside Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in a pairing of the world’s top three players. When Webb Simpson played in Japan, an entire restaurant was shut down so he and Matsuyama could enjoy dinner.
“He ordered for me,” Simpson said. “That was a little more like kind of the raw sushi, like the stuff was living, and then it was killed and we ate it right away.”
In America, Matsuyama remains a mystery to many, though. When it was revealed that he had a wife and daughter back in Japan, he said that he hadn’t shared that information because, “No one really asked me.” His single-mindedness is immediately apparent, though.
Matsuyama is often one of the last to leave the range. Turner used to translate for stars like Woods and Seve Ballesteros when they played in Japan. When asked what traits Matsuyama shares with those legends, Turner said, “The passion. That’s the common denominator.”
Scott saw it in 2013, when he shepherded Matsuyama, then a Presidents Cup rookie, around Muirfield Village.
“He was interested in the whole picture,” Scott said Sunday. “He was interested in what I was eating -- which wasn't anything special -- and how I was training, and … how (caddie) Steve (Williams) and I were working together.
“He wasn't afraid to ask the questions. As timid as some people can be, the desire to do well overshadowed the language barrier.”
The consensus is that Matsuyama knows more English than he lets on. The language barrier serves his purposes, however, by minimizing distractions. While many players hung out in the clubhouse during Saturday’s rain delay, Matsuyama escaped to his car and played games on his phone for an hour.
“It’s easy for him to kind of put the blinkers on and really not get distracted by much noise,” Scott said.
He played flawlessly when the round resumed, playing the final eight holes in 6 under par to separate himself from the field. It was a surgical display of Matsuyama’s best skill, his iron play.
He is the only player to finish in the top 10 of Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green in each of the previous seven seasons.
History for Hideki! 🏆— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) April 11, 2021
Matsuyama wins the Masters and becomes Japan’s first men’s major champion. 🇯🇵 pic.twitter.com/RDBAU0S3SI
“He practices a lot, and it's amazing because the amount of times you see him one-hand a follow-through to 15 feet makes me cringe because I'd like a bit of that,” Scott, also one of the game’s best iron players, said with a laugh. “But he's got really a strong technique. I think he knows his own fundamentals very well, and he doesn't stray much from it.”
Hard work and good fundamentals don’t always translate into results in this frustrating game, however. Matsuyama, who last won in 2017, has seen that first-hand. His Masters win came after a barren three years.
He was the second-ranked player in the world in 2017, a season that featured three victories and saw him sit atop the standings when the FedExCup Playoffs began. He won the World Golf Championship at Firestone by five shots after a final-round 61. It was his last victory until Sunday.
The following week represented his best opportunity to win a major. He was one shot back entering the final round of the PGA Championship but bogeyed two of his final three holes to finish three back of Justin Thomas. Some wondered if that difficult defeat led to his slump.
Matsuyama still qualified for the TOUR Championship on an annual basis but the lack of victories was so frustrating that Matsuyama hired a coach for the first time in his life. He started working with Hidenori Mezawa last December.
When Matsuyama birdied the 13th hole Sunday to take a five-shot lead, the final hour at Augusta National looked like it may be a coronation. But Xander Schauffele birdied 14 and 15, and Matsuyama bogeyed the latter after his approach rolled through the green and into the water. His lead was two when they arrived at the 16th tee. Schauffele hit his tee shot in the water but now Zalatoris was two back.
That’s when Matsuyama had to rely on his other strength. Shigeki Maruyama, a three-time TOUR winner, once said Matsuyama “has a rare combination of physical strength and golfing talent that has never been seen before among Japanese golfers.”
He split the fairway on the narrow 17th and hit his approach to 20 feet for an easy par that gave him a cushion heading to the final hole. Then he could enjoy the walk as he achieved a historic achievement that will resonate throughout his homeland.