The long wait for an Asian winner of the Masters came to a nerve-filled end on Sunday when Hideki Matsuyama from Japan delivered the victory that will send a golf-obsessed nation into rapture.
‘He’ll be lighting the Olympic flame after this,’ said Sir Nick Faldo on US television, and a starring role at the Tokyo Games this summer will surely prove the least of it.
Matsuyama caused palpitations back home, mind, before sealing an historic one stroke success.
Hideki Matsuyama won the 2021 Masters after surviving a nervous finish at Augusta National
The 29 year old from Ehime, at the other end of the country to the capital, looked as if he was cruising to victory when he stepped on to the 15th tee with a four shot lead.
A terrible approach into the water behind the green, however, introduced some unexpected late drama, as his playing partner Xander Schauffele notched his fifth birdie in nine holes to close within two shots.
Just as an unlikely victory must have crossed Schauffele’s mind, the 27 year old choked his tee shot into the water at the 16th. What a time to deliver your first triple bogey in 1,040 holes in majors.
Matsuyama finished on 10 under to become the first Japanese player to win the Green Jacket
Matsuyama, who had his second straight bogey at the 16th, could even afford another at the last and still claim the win that will change his life completely. He closed with a 73.
The fully-deserved triumph brought to an end a run of 11 straight wins in American majors for the host nation, stretching back to Sergio Garcia’s Masters win in 2017. The huge consolation was the emergence of another likely superstar in 24 year old Will Zalatoris, who turned in a marvellous Augusta debut, delivering four rounds under par to finish a worthy runner-up.
Matsuyama emerged a decade ago as the man likely to be the first Japanese male to win a major when he finished leading amateur at the Masters. Now he’s joined a select group including the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Garcia who have gone on to claim the jacket itself.
His win completed a remarkable double for Japanese golf, following victory for Tsubasa Kajitani in the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship that prefaced Masters week.
Despite missed his target wildly on his opening drive, Matsuyama remained firmly in control
For the third day running, Justin Rose couldn’t replicate the excitement generated by his opening 65, as he finished in 7th place.
In the context of this being his first event for a month following a back injury, and a lean couple of years that has seen him fall from number one in the world to 41st, this was a huge improvement. But time is marching on for the 40 year old, and this goes down as another chance to claim the jacket that was not taken.
Rose had started the final round as one of four players tied for second, courtesy of some short game heroics on Saturday evening. It was clear from his opening holes on Sunday that he had used his quota, as he missed two short putts early on. He closed with a 74.
Nothing illustrated the enormous expectation heaped on the shoulders of Matsuyama quite like the opening drive to begin his final round with destiny.
A four shot lead with 18 holes to go sounds so comfortable until you step on to the first tee in the full knowledge that back home a golf-obsessed nation has woken early and is holding its breath.
Fearless rookie Will Zalatoris finished second after birdying the 17th and saving par on the last
Up ahead, Zalatoris had opened with two straight birdies to instantly halve the deficit. Matsuyama, who had nailed every shot over an unbelievable stretch on the back nine on Saturday to take command, missed his target by so far to the right he was decidedly fortunate to have any avenue of recovery at all.
A bogey at the difficult opening hole, though, was as tough as it got on the front nine. A birdie at the second settled him down and thereafter it was virtually faultless for the rest of the outward half. Perhaps it was all too easy, with his late mistakes offering hope to others, before he regained his composure.
Masters rookie Zalatoris was the only member of the second-placed foursome who started well.
The last debutant to win the Masters also happened to be the last top golfer whose surname began with the final letter of the alphabet – Fuzzy Zoeller, in 1979. Zalatoris, with the golden locks appearance of a young Bernhard Langer, showed off his ferocious ball striking to considerable effect.
Like Langer back then, if he has a weakness it is on the greens but it’s not much of one.
The hype train surrounding Bryson DeChambeau derailed after several final round mistakes
Spaniard Jon Rahm shot a final round 66 after all the pent-up frustration of three successive level par rounds to finish as leading European. It was a good effort from the 26 year old but he was never threatening the pacemaker.
Further down the pecking order, there are plenty of shrewd judges who believe Tyrrell Hatton will win majors in the future and perhaps the 68 he shot on Sunday will prove the day he finally took a step in the right direction.
Will there be any more Sundays at the Masters for Ian Poulter? If this was his last round, it wasn’t a bad way to leave the stage as he closed with a 70.
At 17, playing off a handicap of five, Poulter was perhaps the only person on the planet who ever thought he’d make it to Augusta so much as once. This was his 16th appearance, and he’s finished in the top 35 in 13 of them, missing the halfway cut only once.
Matsuyama caused palpitations back in Japan before sealing an historic one stroke success
Outside the world’s top 60 at present, he needs to get back into the top 50 by season’s end for another Augusta waltz.
Poulter has got the appetite and the game and has been in worse scrapes and fought back. But he’s 45 now and there are clearly no certainties.
As for the winner, when Chako Higuchi became the first major champion from Japan in 1977, they gave her a ticker-tape parade.
Now they have a Masters champion, and there might not be enough ticker-tape to go round to match the joy that will simply be unconfined.