Looking through the list of Masters winners, there are a lot of American Flags. It wasn’t until 1961, 27 years after the inaugural Masters (then referred to as the Augusta National Invitation Tournament) that a non-American won the tournament for the first time — Gary Player, of South Africa. Player won the tournament three times between 1961 and 1978, and Seve Ballesteros of Spain won in 1980, representing the second non-American to win. As the game continued to globalize more and more, we saw winners sprout up from other European countries in the 1980s, including Scotland, England, Wales, and Germany. This Masters Tournament, however, was quite different.
The “tradition unlike any other” got a facelift yesterday with the victory of Hideki Matsuyama, who became not only the first Japanese golfer ever to win the Masters (or any major championship, for that matter), but the first golfer from any Asian country to do so.
It’s been a long and slow climb to the top of the American golf mountain for Japanese golf. Isao Aoki was tied for the lead with Jack Nicklaus after 54 holes at the 1980 U.S. Open. Tommy Nakajima finished third at the 1988 PGA, a decade after scoring a disastrous 13 on the 13th hole at Augusta. Masahiro Kuramoto finished T-4 at the 1982 British Open. Shigeki Maruyama had three career top-10s at majors, with his best showing being a T-4 at the 2004 U.S. Open. And Ryo Ishikawa was T-2 after 36 holes at the 2010 U.S. Open as a 19-year-old. But none reached the summit of winning a major.
Enter Hideki Matsuyama, a 29-year-old who was able to play Augusta National ten years ago at the 2011 Masters, where he was the lowest-scoring amateur. A decade later, he surged in the third round with a scorching 65, shooting six under par over the final eight holes. Heading into Sunday’s final round, Matsuyama held a four-shot lead, chased by Justin Rose, Xander Shauffele, Marc Leishman, and Will Zalatoris.
He never let go of that lead. Matsuyama’s stoic poise throughout the day, despite a potential disaster on 15, carried him through to a one-stroke win after tapping in for bogey on 18. As the ball dropped into the hole, there was no demonstrative yell. No throwing of the clubs, or leaping, or falling to his knees and weeping — Matsuyama won the way he played, with poise and calm. He picked up the ball, put it in his back pocket, tipped his hat, and grinned.
“When the final putt went in, I wasn’t really thinking of anything,” Matsuyama said through an interpreter after his Masters victory. “And then, it started sinking in — the joy of being a Masters champion. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like, but what a thrill and honor it will be for me to take the green jacket back to Japan.”
And back to Japan he will take it. The coveted green jacket, tailored and awarded to the winner of the Masters each year, which can stay in the winner’s possession until the next Masters, was with Matsuyama on his flight after his victory. As he waited for his commercial flight out of Atlanta this morning, casually dressed in sneakers and a T-shirt, looking through his phone, the green jacket sat next to him, draped over an airport seat.
In a time when racially-targeted violence against Asians and Asian-Americans has been on the rise, a golfer from the Land of the Rising Sun, speaking through an interpreter, bringing home the world’s greatest golfing achievement while on American soil is a triumph of much more significance than just sport. It’s a triumph for his country, for diversity, for acceptance, and for the next generation of international golfers.
“Up until now, we haven’t had a major champion in Japan, maybe a lot of young golfers thought it was an impossibility,” he said. “Hopefully this will set an example that it is possible and if they set their mind to it, they can do it, too.”