The win is a Japanese first in any of the four major tournaments
Hideki Matsuyama became the first Japanese player ever to win the Masters. Exactly a decade ago, at the very same podium in Augusta National Golf Club, a then-19-year-old Hideki held the silver cup for low-amateur honors in his hands.
It was his dream major tournament, having earned his spot in the field following his win at the Asia Amateur Championship the previous autumn. The college student from Sendai, the disaster site of the Tohoku earthquake that happened only a month prior to the tournament, drew the world’s attention as one of the up-and-coming talents by becoming the only amateur player among six to play four rounds of golf that week (and finished T27).
It was all the more impressive considering he hadn’t won any of the big events in Japan as a junior golfer, nor played any tournament in the mainland US prior to the 2011 Masters. Praised by a standing ovation from patrons and club members, Matsuyama reflected on his achievement.
“I want to come back to this stage again. I want to play here over four days again. I have to come back here.”
And with reverence, he witnessed the winner Charl Schwartzel putting on the symbol of champions right next to him.
The Masters tournament undoubtedly became a turning point for Matsuyama to turn himself into one of the top players of his generation. However, looking back over the years, people would come to see him dissatisfied on more than one occasion during his subsequent visits to Augusta.
In 2012, he returned to the tournament after defending his title at the Asia Amateur Championship. He made the cut again and carded a disappointing 80 for the final round. About to face legions of press after his TV coverage interview, Hideki instead disappeared into the locker room, and cried alone. It wasn’t because he blew an opportunity to win the low-amateur title for the second straight year by 2 strokes. He wept and muttered aloud, “not good enough” — reflecting on the way he played that Sunday.
After turning pro, Hideki entered the 2014 Masters with limited preparation due to a left wrist injury, and carded a first round 80 that resulted in him missing the cut. Despite recording a career best 5th place finish in 2015, he was still not satisfied — further eroding his resolve. In 2016, Hideki entered the final round 2 strokes behind the leader, played in the penultimate group and finished T7. And in 2017, he put himself just inside the top 30 after the third round. Starting the final round 10 shots behind the leader, Hideki carded the lowest round 67 and finished T11 to secure the exemption for the following year. Yet still, Matsuyama hadn’t achieved the results he believed he was capable of.
From 2018, Hideki finished 19th, T32 in 2019, and T13 in 2020. Part of the reason for this below-standard result was a thumb injury that he’d suffered in early 2018. He had recorded at least one top 10 finish in one of the majors for 3 straight years, but that streak had come to an end. While he said, “I’ll do my best to win next year” after the 2020 Masters, he also admitted that he was “sensing some weakness” against the golf course that he'd now played 9 times.
At the Masters, players receive their registration number at the course when they enter themselves prior to the tournament. It’s the number caddies put on their chest. In 2015, “19” was the number that Matsuyama was assigned at Augusta. The year before, Jordan Spieth got that same number and finished runner-up. Hideki recalled the number and said, “runner-up, it’s the last place I want to finish.”
This underlying strong determination resulted in Matsuyama willing to make a significant change. From the beginning of 2021, a newly hired coach Hidenori Mezawa had been spotted beside Matsuyama. It was the first time as a pro that Hideki decided to share his trial and error with someone else. Looking back now, it was evidence of just how desperately Matsuyama wanted to win the 2021 Masters.
This newly formed partnership didn’t flower easily. It was the first time in Matsuyama’s career to miss a top 10 finish in the first three months of the year. A 15th place finish was the best he could do. It was also the first time he’d miss the cut twice during that same time period. He would sometimes leave the golf course in silence after a poor performance. However, in spite of that, Matsuyama didn’t abandon what he was working toward. He instead anomalously rehearsed the entire Masters tournament the week before, exploring every possibility until the very last minute, just as he did the year before.
It was just before entering the tournament’s big stage that his caddie, Shota Hayafuji, heard Matsuyama muttering to himself “maybe I can win this week”. Every piece finally fell into place.
10 years after Hideki Matsuyama envisioned his future, with the current Masters champion at his side, did that future finally come true. On April 11, 2021, a decade after the earthquake, Matsuyama had a smile on his face like the world had never seen, as he reached his arms up high in the air, over and over again.
As dusk fell and the applause grew louder during the presentation ceremony, the jacket (usually fresh green in color) looked far darker and deeper than usual. With Hideki wearing it, the jacket almost looked as if all his hard work, blood, sweat and tears had literally soaked into it. It was the perfect shade of green to honor this hard fought champion.