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TARA SULLIVAN

In his native Japan, Hideki Matsuyama’s milestone victory is a major achievement

Hideki Matsuyama raises his fists while donning the green jacket after his Masters victory.
Hideki Matsuyama raises his fists while donning the green jacket after his Masters victory.Jared C. Tilton/Getty

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Hideki Matsuyama was already draped in green, courtesy of the jacket Dustin Johnson had just slipped over his shoulders near Augusta’s famed Butler Cabin. Officially a Masters champ, Matsuyama looked slightly uncertain of what to do next. Golf’s newest major winner stood on the grass, looking to his right, looking to his left, and finally, with a smile to light up the dimming Georgia night, pumped his two balled fists straight to the sky.

Half a world away, an entire nation rose along with him, celebrating a favored son who had just taken their small island nation to unprecedented athletic heights. Golf may be a global game, but when Matsuyama returns home to Japan, he will do so as the nation’s first male golfer to win a major title, and the first Asian man ever to win the Masters.

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“I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like,” he would say later, “but what a thrill and honor it will be for me to take the green jacket back to Japan. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Matsuyama’s profile in Japan is almost unimaginable to the American audience, though in the eyes of former Masters champ and regular visitor to Japanese tournaments Adam Scott, it’s “a bit like Tiger Woods to the rest of the world, in Japan.” For the nation of 126 million people to wake up to the news that for the first time, a man from their country had won one of golf’s four major tournaments, and for the first time ever an Asian man had won the Masters was, in the words of Ken Harms — who caddies for Kevin Na, the American born in South Korea — “like winning the Super Bowl in their country.”

Hideki Matsuyama waves during the green jacket ceremony Sunday at Augusta.
Hideki Matsuyama waves during the green jacket ceremony Sunday at Augusta.Jared C. Tilton/Getty

It was a nod not simply to a golf-crazed country, but to a player who has carried the weight of their expectation for more than a decade, to a man who said he had to stop and pause just to settle his nerves on the first tee Sunday, who said he couldn’t actually quiet them completely until his tee shot on 18 settled in the fairway and not even the two-putt bogey he completed on the green would endanger his victory.

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He’d survived a bogey on No. 1, he’d survived absolute madness on No. 15, he’d withstood the unrelenting pressure from his playing partner Xander Schauffele as well as from the young American Will Zalatoris, who played two groups ahead.

It was Zalatoris who finished in second, one last birdie on 17 pushing Matsuyama to the end, and the 24-year-old from Texas has one of the brightest futures in the game. But it was Schauffele who really made the back nine come alive, his three straight birdies on 12, 13, and 14 goading Matsuyama into a much too aggressive second shot on 15, a shot that went so far it landed in the water on 16. When he ended up with a bogey and Schauffele finished off a fourth straight birdie, the two men went to the 16th tee just two strokes apart. Schauffele, teeing off first, dumped the ball in the water.

From there, Matsuyama was clear.

“Man, he was something else,” Schauffele said. “He played like a winner needs to play. He was like a robot. Not that I was going to scare him. I was nine back at one point or seven back. At 16, I really would have loved to have put more pressure on him there, but basically gave him the tournament at that point.”

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The 2021 Masters has been different from the start, teeing off as it did a mere five months after the pandemic-delayed 2020 tournament was held. It opened with a special and historic nod to the past, welcoming Lee Elder, the first Black player to compete at the Masters, alongside all-time champions Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player on the ceremonial opening tee.

It ended with a nod to the future, alive in the 29-year-old man who came here a decade ago and won low amateur honors, a trip he was able to make only because of expanded Augusta efforts to include international players. At 19, Matsuyama wasn’t sure he even belonged on the manicured lawns and rolling hills of Augusta, and given the state of his home country, wasn’t sure the timing was right to find out. But as the winner of the first Asia-Pacific Amateur, an opportunity beckoned, and had he not taken it, he might not have been celebrating now.

“It was a difficult time in Japan because the earthquake and tsunami had just hit, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to come or not,” he said. “But I came and fortunately was able to finish low amateur, and that experience, knowing I could play with other professionals really gave me a lot of confidence. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the members of Augusta National because I wouldn’t be here today without them.”

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Hideki Matsuyama puts on the green jacket after it was presented to him by 2020 Masters champion Dustin Johnson.
Hideki Matsuyama puts on the green jacket after it was presented to him by 2020 Masters champion Dustin Johnson.Kevin C. Cox/Getty

Now he gets to be with them forever, punching his permanent ticket to play, providing a permanent example for young golfers at home.

When those fists went skyward, they took a nation with them.

“Hopefully for youngsters even thinking about playing golf I hope they will see this victory and think it’s cool and try to follow in my footsteps,” he said. “Up until now we haven’t had a major champion from Japan, and maybe a lot of younger golfers thought it was an impossibility, but hopefully with me doing it, it will set an example for them that it is possible and if they set their mind to it, they can see it too.

“But I still have a lot of years left, so they’re going to have to compete against me still.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.