AUGUSTA: Hideki Matsuyama became the first Japanese man to win a major golf championship on Sunday, holding his nerve down the stretch to capture the 85th Masters after a dramatic final round. Carrying the hopes of a nation on his shoulders, Matsuyama calmly grinded out clutch pars and struck for crucial birdies in a pressure-packed march at Augusta National, hanging on over the final holes for a historic one-stroke victory.
Matsuyama took the green jacket symbolic of Masters supremacy, a top prize of $2.07 million (1.74 million euros) and a place for the ages in Japanese sports history. “I’m really happy,” he said through a translator. “Hopefully I’ll be a pioneer in this and many other Japanese will follow. I’m happy to open the floodgate and many more will follow me. Maybe a lot of younger golfers thought, ‘That’s an impossibility,’ but with me doing it they will realize it is possible and if they set their minds to it they can do it.”
After seeing his seven-stroke lead with seven holes remaining shaved to two shots with three to go, Matsuyama watched Xander Schauffele find water off the 16th tee on the way to a triple-bogey disaster. “I felt like I gave him a little bit of a run and made a little bit of excitement for the tournament until I met a watery grave there,” Schauffele said. “I’ll be able to sleep tonight. It might be hard but I’ll be OK.” Matsuyama settled for bogey but closed with par at 17 and a bogey at 18 to fire a one-over-par 73 and finish 72 holes on 10-under 278.
Nerves from the start
“My nerves really didn’t start on the second nine,” Matsuyama said. “It was from the start today to the very last putt.” American Will Zalatoris was second in his Masters debut on 279 after a closing 70 with US three-time major winner Jordan Spieth and American Schauffele sharing third on 281. “It was a fun week,” Zalatoris said. “I know I can play with the best players in the world.”
Matsuyama became only the second Asian man to win a major title after South Korea’s Yang Yong-eun at the 2009 PGA Championship. Matsuyama, ranked 25th, hadn’t won since the 2017 WGC Akron tournament, but 87 starts later, he matched the victory from his only other 54-hole outright PGA lead, at the 2016 WGC Shanghai tournament.
The best prior majors by Japanese men were Isao Aoki’s runner-up effort at the 1980 US Open and Matsuyama’s share of second at the 2017 US Open. No prior Japanese player had finished better than fourth at the Masters. Japan’s two previous major golf titles belonged to women, Chako Higuchi from the 1977 LPGA Championship and Hinako Shibuno at the 2019 Women’s British Open. The tension of the moment was on display at the start, Matsuyama hitting his first tee shot well right into trees on the way to a bogey. He shook it off at the par-5 second, blasting out of a greenside bunker and tapping in for birdie.
Matsuyama saved par at the fifth on a 20-foot putt and used a deft touch with short irons to set up birdies at the par-5 eighth and par-4 ninth. Matsuyama made bogey at the par-3 12th and hit a tree off the tee at the par-5 13th but recovered for birdie as Schauffele made his move.
Schauffele was three-over after five holes but birdied at seven and eight and reeled off four birdies in a row starting at the 12th. “I fought hard. It was a messy start,” Schauffele said. “Hideki was robot-like for 13 holes.” Tension grew as Matsuyama found the water over the green at the par-5 15th and made bogey while Schauffele had a tap-in birdie to pull within two shots with three holes to play. But Schauffele’s tee shot met a watery fate at the par-3 16th and he made triple bogey, his first in any major after 1,041 prior holes. “I was coming in hot,” Schauffele said. “Went a little hyper-aggressive at 16.”
Matsuyama, 29, would close with three bogeys in the last four holes but blasted from a bunker at 18 to six feet and two putted for bogey to win. Matsuyama’s thoughts were on his family back home in Japan. “I was thinking about them all the way around today,” he said. “I was playing it for them.”
One by one, Matsuyama’s rivals fell back, early stumbles leaving their rallies too little and far too late. Zalatoris, trying to be the first player to win the Masters in his debut since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, was second at the turn but bogeys at 10 and 12 dropped him back.
Spieth had three bogeys in the first six holes and not even four back-nine birdies could give him a chance. England’s Justin Rose, the 2013 US Open champion, had three bogeys in the first five holes and fired a 74 to finish seventh on 283, one back of Spain’s third-ranked Jon Rahm and Australia’s Marc Leishman. – AFP