A fast start from Justin Rose, and Will Zalatoris threatened to become the first rookie to win at Augusta since 1979. But this Masters belonged to Hideki Matsuyama and Japan … now roll on the Olympics, says Ewen Murray.
The previous edition of this eagerly-anticipated event on the sporting calendar in November was welcome given the world problems, but when the 85th Masters got under way on April 8, all seemed right in the game of golf.
The azaleas, dogwoods and camellias were out in full bloom, Augusta was presented exactly how it was meant to be and so many of the sport’s best players were in good form.
Home hopes were raised quickly as Justin Rose completed the last 11 holes of round one in nine under par. Twice second in the tournament, many were thinking it could be third-time lucky, but Justin’s hopes dissolved after an untidy third day.
At the halfway stage, 12 players were separated by just three shots, and seven of those 12 were Americans. Saturday was the day the Masters was won. Hideki Matsuyama thundered home in just 30 shots and posted the only bogey-free round of the week.
As always, Sunday produced drama only this unique course can. The tension on the first tee was heightened by the possibility of a first Japanese victory. As Hideki teed off, my thoughts and words were centred on the delayed Olympic Games due to be conducted in Tokyo in a few weeks’ time.
What a shot in the arm if he could see this one out. But, of course, the final round was always going to be an exacting test, with a four-shot lead not to be taken for granted. It was a test not just of golf, but of nerve, temperament, focus and belief.
Japanese TV have covered every Masters since the live broadcasts began in 1973. An army of cameramen, producers and sound technicians have followed the likes of Asao Aoki, Tommy Nakajima, the Osaki brothers and, in more recent years, Ryo Ishikawa, in the hope that one day, they would have a Master golfer.
With the restrictions in numbers at the television compound this year, an American network impressively supplied extra coverage for Tokyo Broadcasting as the Far Eastern nation settled down in front of their screens with hopes high and fingers crossed.
Matsuyama was aided by mistakes early on from his pursuers and, after an impressive front nine, his lead was a handsome one. Having safely steered his way through 10,11 and, to a degree, the 12th, the turning point arrived at 13.
With closest-rival and playing partner Xander Schauffele dispatching a brilliant second to seven feet, Matsuyama replied with one of several deft pitches to secure his birdie. Xander’s putt slipped by and the possibility of a two-shot swing was averted.
That, however, was only the start of the drama. We were then reminded of just how difficult it is to win on this artistic, yet dangerous stage. The two-shot swing did arrive at the 15th as Matsuyama found water, only for Schauffele to make the same mistake at 16.
Enter Will Zalatoris, a young man who had zero status on Tour until a remarkable run of form earned him special temporary membership of the PGA Tour. Zalatoris edged his way into the world’s top 50 to secure an invitation to Augusta. Victory and he’d have been the first debutant to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
Quote of the week belonged to Will: “I am silly enough to think I can play this course and I’m stupid enough to think I can win the Masters!” How close he came.
But this was Japan’s and Hideki’s time. Despite the late mistakes, (he played the final four holes seven shots worse than when Charl Schwartzel won 10 years earlier) he held his nerve to provide a historic victory and join Japan’s major winners on the ladies tour; Hisako ‘Chako’ Higuchi and Hinako Shibuno.
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His win, and what it does for his country, is hard to put into context. Japan has a strong and lucrative tour which has been successful for decades. New sponsors will be keen to support golf and youngsters will see the game as ‘cool’ now they have a hero to look up to.
There is not much open land left in Japan, but some space may be found to build courses and ranges to accommodate an increase in its current 10 million golfers.
And so to The Olympics. I hope this phenomenal victory encourages a strong representation of golfers from every country. There is much talk of increasing interest in golf worldwide and there is no better stage than the Olympic Games to drive that point home.
It may be that the Japanese flag is carried by the sport’s latest champion, but it would be no surprise if the flame is lit by Japan’s Master golfer dressed immaculately in a crisp green jacket.
In true Masters style. 👏
Hideki Matsuyama’s caddie Shota Hayafuji bowing to the course after their victory at Augusta National. #TheMasterspic.twitter.com/QeqtCl1hzq
Finally, my abiding memory will be of Hideki’s caddie and close friend, Shota Hiyafuji. It’s accepted that the caddie gets to keep the flag on the final green when his player wins a major. After a hug with Hideki in celebration, Shota removed the flag and walked slowly across the 18th green to replace the pin. He looked down the fairway, took off his cap, before giving a ceremonial bow to the elegant acres below.
It was a moment that spoke a thousand words, a moment that respected the traditions of his country. A moment of raw emotion and one that showed his class and awareness of the history of Augusta National golf club. Yes, the spring Masters delivered another outstanding tournament and how fortunate we are to have it.
For now, sayonara.
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