The Masters: Hideki Matsuyama shouldering the hopes and dreams of an entire nation
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
It was the 85th Masters and the second in a period of five months. Hideki Matsuyama became the 54th man to triumph at Augusta and the 16th from outside the United States.
Yet golf’s grandest event and the way it unfolded this year was really all about being first. Yes, we know Matsuyama was the first male player from Japan to win the title and, indeed, the first to win a major, but even that doesn’t really sum it up.
Because the 29-year-old, now ranked No. 14 in the world, prevailed through a special kind of pressure, different from what any American champion at the same venue has ever had to go through. Not necessarily a greater pressure – every golfer who has played Augusta National has wrestled with and controlled inner demons — but a different one.
Tension is part of the inherent nature of golf, born from the reality that at the moment when you most need to be calm, your mind is racing like never before. At Augusta, that is magnified. In the case of Matsuyama, shouldering the hopes and dreams of an entire nation as he held off Will Zalatoris and Xander Schauffele on Sunday, there was a lot that could have weighed him down, if he’d allowed it to.
For Japan adores its golf without restraint yet has never really had a sniff of this kind of glory. Back in 1980, Isao Aoki finished second at the U.S. Open. Until Sunday, that’s as good as it had gotten.
Matsuyama and other elite Japanese athletes, such as baseball dual-threat Shohei Ohtani (and Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki before him) and tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, spend most of their careers under an intense spotlight. The sporting public back home is voracious in its appetite and fervent in its support. It is a blessing, but it comes with a constant reminder that much is expected.
"As the world’s second-biggest golf market, it is totally fair to say the public here have been longing for a major winner for goodness knows how long," Shintaro Kano, a Tokyo-based journalist and Olympic Channel producer who has covered Japanese and international sports for two decades, told me. "For it to come at the Masters tops it all. Everyone believed Matsuyama would win a major at some point. But for it to happen this way is extra special."
Matsuyama commented during the week that COVID-19 restrictions had brought a small silver lining. Instead of being peppered with questions by a huge throng of Japanese reporters after each round, he had to deal with only two members of his homeland’s media. One of them, Wataru Serizawa of Kyodo News, almost missed the most significant moment in Japan’s golf history when he lost his credential, as beautifully told by NJ.com’s Steve Politi.
On Saturday, as Matsuyama held a 4-stroke overnight lead, he could not be located for his media duties. He was eventually tracked down in his vehicle, playing a game on his phone. He’s shy and reserved and managed to keep his recent wedding a secret from everyone except close friends and family. But now he’s going to be under the microscope more than ever.
He is being talked about as a potential torchbearer for the Tokyo Olympics, and when things are closer to normal, he’ll have Japanese media following his every swing – and every word – at each PGA Tour stop.
"It’s not uncommon now for a Japanese athlete to do well overseas in any sport," Kano added. "But for a long time, it was a rarity. The Japanese public are very keen on knowing how their athletes are doing and also to know how they’re perceived by the outside world."
To that note, one of the first follow-up stories in the Japanese press about Matsuyama’s win was all about how it had been covered by the foreign media.
It is not only Japan where such a phenomenon exists. Any time a country loves sports, there will be a growing hunger for success, especially if it hasn’t happened before or hasn't happened for a while.
Great Britain’s Andy Murray felt the burden on the tennis circuit each year. By the time he won the US Open in 2012, no British man had secured a Grand Slam title for 76 years. The hunger for a homegrown Wimbledon champ, which he accomplished in 2013 and again in 2016, was even stronger. Every time Murray played a Slam, the press pack would follow his every move and, until the ultimate breakthrough, report each new near-miss back to the U.K. public.
It is different in the U.S. Many of the most significant moments on the sports calendar, as far as the U.S. public is concerned, are domestic affairs. LeBron James carries pressure every time he suits up for an NBA Finals game; same with Tom Brady as he takes the field for yet another Super Bowl. All eyes are upon them, but they aren't carrying the country’s hopes — or, potentially, years of national heartache and disappointment.
"There is definitely a layer of pressure for the Japanese athletes when they play internationally," Kano said. "The journalists are going to write about them every day and will follow what they are doing every step of the way, even if the athlete doesn’t say anything or hasn’t done anything on that particular day."
Regardless, Matsuyama handled his moment of truth superbly, a couple of blips on the back nine notwithstanding.
His shyness isn’t going to evaporate no matter how many extra interviews he does, but at his champion’s media conference, he found just the right tone, summing up what his victory will mean to golf in Japan and inserting a timely dash of humor – mixed with a touch of bravado.
"It is thrilling to think there are a lot of youngsters in Japan watching today. When they get a little older, some of them will hopefully be on the world stage," Matsuyama said. "But … they’re going to have to compete against me."
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.