Japan Celebrates First Masters Champion
JAPAN Make no mistake - the impact on the Land of the Rising Sun of Hideki Matsuyama’s dramatic one-shot victory at The Masters will be enormous.
This is a golf-mad country, with an estimated 10 million active players, and Matsuyama can be assured of a hero’s welcome upon his return, despite the fact that Japan is in the grip of a fourth wave of the Covid pandemic. In some ways, that may have worked in his favour at Augusta because it meant that, for once, his every move was not followed by dozens of journalists and camera crews.
He is not the first golfer to carry the weight of the nation’s expectations. Brothers Jumbo and Joe Ozaki won tournaments for fun in Asia but were unable to translate that form into success on the wider world stage. Isao Aoki won the World Matchplay and several other high-profile tournaments but he also fell short when it mattered most. And Ryo Ishakawa has spent his life trying to live up to media expectations.
Demand far outstrips supply when it comes to facilities. There simply isn’t room to build enough golf courses so most of Japan’s golfers hit balls at vast driving ranges and never get near a course. And golf club membership is prohibitively expensive. There will be huge pressure for this to change now. Like most parts of the world, participation numbers had already increased during the pandemic and interest will reach fever pitch after Matsuyama’s win.
The final round was played in the wee small hours in Japan, and millions of people stayed up to see if their man could win the Green Jacket. And they were queueing up to congratulate him.
Hinako Shibuno, the 2019 Women's Open champion, said: "I’m very happy and excited to watch this historical moment as Matsuyama-san is the first Japanese player to win the Masters." she said. "I am overcome with emotions and want to extend a well-deserved congratulations.”
Rex Kuramoto, a commentator for Golf Channel Japan, said: “We’ve been waiting 10, 30, 40 years for this. It will be huge. We have other athletes doing well internationally, but he’s definitely one of the top five athletes. He’s been dealing with this since he turned pro. He’s used to it now. He’ll be a TV show. It will be crazy when he returns to Japan.”
Katsunobu Kato, Japan’s top government spokesman, expressed “congratulations and respect from the heart” for Matsuyama’s “historic” win, which came as another ray of hope during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It is another bright piece of news of a Japanese athlete’s outstanding performance on the global stage under tough circumstances like training,” Kato said.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called Matsuyama’s win “wonderful” and a source of pride and courage for the Japanese people during the difficulties posed by the pandemic.
His popularity goes well beyond Japan. As he was putting the finishing touches on his victory Kevin Na sprinted from the clubhouse to watch the victory greenside. Na had driven his wife and daughter to the airport before racing back to Augusta National to congratulate his friend. Although he was born in South Korea, Na understands what a Masters victory means to all of Asia. “It’s a big day for the Asian golf world,” he said. “I think there’s many more to come. This won’t be the end.”
Matsuyama admitted that he didn’t sleep well on Saturday night. That should come as no surprise. Jordan Spieth, a man who knows something about expectation, said: “I remember the feeling with a four-shot lead at The Masters, and he's got Japan on his back and maybe Asia on his back. I can't imagine how that was trying to sleep on that, even with somebody who's had so much success. I think the way he's been able to withstand it, it's really good for the game of golf globally.”
He has yet to grasp the scale of his achievement, and its impact on those back home.
“Up until now, we haven't had a major champion in Japan, and maybe a lot of younger golfers thought, well, maybe that's an impossibility. But with me doing it, hopefully that will set an example for them that it is possible and that, if they set their mind to it, they can do it, too. Hopefully now others will be inspired for what happened here today and follow in my footsteps.” he said.
Matsuyama said that his idols growing up were not golfers but baseball players. He is a modest young man and the reality is that he is as big in Japan as Tiger Woods is in America. And that was before he won at Augusta. Japan’s children will be growing up idolising him.
Remember, too, that Tokyo will be hosting the Olympic Games this summer. Can you even begin to imagine the pressure on Matsuyama’s shoulders to deliver a gold medal for his countrymen?
Hidemasa Nakamura, the Games delivery officer for the Tokyo Olympics organising committee, admitted that he had stayed up late at night to watch Matsuyama. “It was a nice encouragement because we would like to prepare for this summer in Tokyo so that such hard-working players can play an active role,” he said. There is already growing pressure on the Olympic committee for Matsuyama to be given the ultimate honour of lighting the Olympic cauldron in Tokyo.
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