Green is rarely associated with Japan, but today, the world’s 11th most populous country is frantically searching the back of their closets for green jackets to don, in celebration that one of their own, Hideki Matsuyama, has won The Masters.
A Sunday 1-over 73 was not exceptional, but it was enough to hold his 54-hole lead, and claim a not-as-close-as-it-sounds one stroke victory over little-known Will Zalatoris.
Matsuyama first made waves at Augusta ten years ago in 2011 as that tournament’s low amateur, and with his win today, he became the first Japanese golfer in PGA Tour history to win a major championship.
Among those who walked the path to get Matsuyama to Butler Cabin were Masashi “Jumbo” Ozaki – a World Golf Hall of Famer who won 94 times in Japan; Isao Aoki – the first Japanese native to win on the PGA Tour, and runner-up to Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 U.S. Open; Tsuneyuki “Tommy” Nakajima – a 48-time Japan Tour winner, who was the highest ranked Japanese golfer (No. 4 in 1986) until Hideki Matsuyama reached No. 2 in 2017; and Shigeki Maruyama – a three-time PGA Tour winner, who went 5-0-0 for the International Team at the 1998 Presidents Cup, the only year they won the team event.
Matsuyama’s accomplishment on Sunday may be the biggest boom to Japan’s place in the golf world yet.
Not only does it put Japan more prominently on the map, it resurrects a golf career that had largely stalled after the 29-year-old won five Tour events from 2014 to 2017.
Coming into the week, Matsuyama had not won since the 2017 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. That season he won three times and finished runner-up three additional times.
At the 36-hole mark, Matsuyama was in good position at 4-under-par, three strokes behind then-leader Justin Rose. He surged into the lead after a rain delay in the third round softened the greens – something that the rest of the field failed to capitalize on, to the same extent.
With four birdies and an eagle in his final eight holes, the former world No. 1 amateur took a four-stroke lead going into Sunday over three players. Despite what many would call a commanding lead, Matsuyama was nowhere near a lock to stay out front. He had struggled in major contention before, was on a lengthy winless streak, was carrying the weight of an entire country on his shoulders, and has consistently been among the worst putters on Tour in his career. That all added up to a difficult final round ahead, regardless of the lead.
Matsuyama had to feel uncomfortable when he bogeyed the first hole, but he immediately bounced back with a birdie on the par-5 2nd. Meanwhile, his primary competition began to falter, most notably final-round playing partner Xander Schauffele, who was also seeking his first major after several close calls.
Schauffele had a stretch of bogey-bogey-double from 3-5 to drop further back. In addition, 2015 Masters Champion Jordan Spieth, recently reinvigorated after a win in Texas last week, bogeyed three of his first six. Rose and Aussie Marc Leishman also struggled early.
Matsuyama parred his next five holes, before adding birdies on Nos. 8 and 9 to turn on 2-under, and 13-under for the tournament. The collapse that many expected was simply not happening, and going into Augusta’s final nine holes, his closest contender was Zalatoris at four back, a man who does not even have full status on Tour.
Matsuyama bogeyed 12, but again, birdied the very next hole. It seemed like he would give nothing to the field… until he suddenly did.
Schauffele, who finished runner-up to Tiger Woods in 2019, caught fire with birdies on Nos. 12, 13, and 14. Then, on the par-5 15th, Matsuyama hit his approach well over the green, and into water that many did not realize existed. It took a good effort to just save bogey, and combined with Schauffele’s fourth birdie in a row, suddenly the lead was just two with three holes to go.
The excitement of a brand-new tournament lasted all of about a minute. Schauffele took an aggressive line to the famous pin location on the par-3 16th, had his ball knocked down by the wind, and landed in the water. He triple-bogeyed the hole, all but ending his chances, even with Matsuyama bogeying the hole himself.
Two groups ahead, Zalatoris kept his hopes alive with a birdie on 17, and needing to keep pace on 18, sunk a long par putt, a surprising clutch shot when everyone else on the leaderboard seemed to be missing every shot they needed.
The 24-year-old playing in his first Masters warmed up on the range while the last two groups finished up, but no extra holes were needed. A par-bogey finish gave Matsuyama the one-stroke win, and his first major championship.
This version of The Masters occurred just five months after the 2020 edition, as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it from its regular spot in April until November. The scoring was much lower in November, with champion Dustin Johnson reaching a record 20-under-par for the week in his four-stroke romp. Johnson missed the cut in his title defense.
After Zalatoris, Schauffele and Spieth tied for third place, and in addition to Matsuyama, six international players posted a result in the top 10.
2021 Masters: Top 5
Pos-Player-To Par (Final Rd)
1. Hideki Matsuyama -10 (+1)
2. Will Zalatoris -9 (-2)
3. Jordan Spieth -7 (-2)
3. Xander Schauffele -7 (E)
5. Jon Rahm -6 (-6)
5. Marc Leishman -6 (+1)
7. Justin Rose -5 (+2)
8. Patrick Reed -4 (-3)
8. Corey Conners -4 (+2)
8. Cameron Smith -3 (E)
8. Tony Finau -3 (+3)
How Hideki Matsuyama Won The Masters
Matsuyama had close calls in several previous majors, but had not been quite as high up on major leaderboards since bogeying three straight holes on the back-nine while in the lead at the 2017 PGA Championship.
Still, he had played well at The Masters in recent years with five top-20s in his last six attempts at Augusta.
Matsuyama’s tee-to-green game has always been elite. Just last season he was second on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green and fifth in both strokes gained: approach-the-green and strokes gained: around-the-green. He continued to be elite in this regard at Augusta. His putting had circumscribed his results in the past, but he did enough this week to not lose on the greens.
Matsuyama actually came into the week in poor form, missing the cut at THE PLAYERS Championship a month ago after opening with a 76, and then he followed with a T42 at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and a T30 at last week’s Valero Texas Open. He had posted just one top 10 in 16 starts of the 2021 season, a T2 at November’s Vivint Houston Open.
Hideki Matsuyama’s Winning Numbers
Driving: 288.6 (47th)
Longest Drive: 327 yds (Rd 3)
Fairways: 36/56, 64.3% (41st)
Greens: 50/72, 69.5% (7th)
Putts/Per GIR: 2.286 (3rd)
Amen Corner: -5
Scores: 3 Eagles, 13 Birdies, 47 Pars, 9 Bogeys
What It Means For Matsuyama
The positive effect this win has on his legacy, and on the progression of professional golf in Japan cannot be overstated. Matsuyama will likely be mentioned by every future Japanese golf star as somebody they looked up to.
In a more narrow view, Hideki jumps from 25th in the world rankings to 14th. His high ranking was second in 2017, with his low since being 32nd in 2019. As with all Masters wins, Matsuyama now has a lifetime exemption to this event. He also qualifies for every major championship for the foreseeable future, although he had not missed one since the 2013 Masters.
This is the second consecutive week that a notable player snapped a winless drought dating back to 2017, after Spieth won last week’s Valero Texas Open. To those who like betting the trends, other players with multiple wins on Tour with none since 2017 include former Open Champion Henrik Stenson, former PGA Championship winner Jason Dufner, three-time Tour winner Russell Henley, and two-time winner Brian Harman, the latter of whom contended most of this week.
Matsuyama’s 2021 PGA Tour Season
Cuts Made: 14
Wins: 1 (The Masters)
Additional Top 10/20: 1/5
Earnings: $3,741,419 (3)
FedExCup Pts: 1,244 (4)
World Rank Before/After: 25/14
As many predicted coming into the week, world No. 3 Jon Rahm was especially relevant on Sunday. There was a question of where his mental game would be less than a week from the birth of his first child, a son named Kepa, some thinking he would be distracted while others thought he would be invigorated.
The Spaniard shot even-par 72 in each of the first three rounds, preventing the 26-year-old from capturing his first major, but he was the best player at Augusta on Sunday, shooting a bogey-free 6-under 66 that was the best round in the field by two strokes.
The tremendous 18 holes jumped Rahm from T21 to T5, his fourth consecutive Masters top 10. The second-best round of the day also came from a highly-ranked European looking for his first career major.
World No. 8 Tyrrell Hatton of England birdied four consecutive holes on the back nine to shoot a 4-under 68, his first time breaking 70 in 16 rounds at The Masters. Hatton moved a field high 25 spots up the final leaderboard, from T43 to T18.
Patrick Reed, the 2018 Masters champion, mostly lost his chances of a second green jacket with a 75 in the second round, but off the strength of four straight back-nine birdies, the same four Hatton birdied, he shot a final round 3-under 69 to finish T8, his third top 10 finish in the major that occurs in the same city as the college (Augusta State) he once led to a national title.
– Jon Rahm (65, T21 > T5)
– Tyrrell Hatton (68, T43 > T18)
– Patrick Reed (69, T13 > T8)
Corey Conners was just five strokes out of the lead going into the final round, and he birdied the second to get more into the mix, but he hit a horrific stretch later in the front nine, with bogeys on 5 and 6, a double bogey on 7, and another bogey on 8. He would not bogey another hole, but by then, the damage was largely done.
The Canadian shot a 2-over 74 that dropped him from T6 to a still impressive T8, but the 29-year-old has to be wondering what could have been.
Given the nightmare that 2021 has been for Henrik Stenson, with the 45-year-old Swede missing his last six cuts, just making the weekend at Augusta, while so many big names did not, has to be considered encouraging. Unfortunately for him, he was back to his worst stuff on Sunday, shooting a 4-over 76 that dropped him 25 spots from T13 to T38.
Just two years ago, Francesco Molinari held the 54-hole lead in this event, and even reached 13-under on the back-nine, before water balls on 13 and 15 doomed him to a T5. He was much worse on this Sunday, shooting an abysmal birdie-free 9-over 81 to plummet a field-high 31 spots from T21 to solo-52nd.
The Italian has struggled for most of the last two years and no longer ranks inside the top 100 of the OWGR.
– Corey Conners (74, T6 > T8)
– Henrik Stenson (76, T13 > T38)
– Francesco Molinari (81, T21 > 52)
“Not Going Anywhere…”
“It’s thrilling to think that there are a lot of youngsters in Japan watching today.
“Hopefully, in five, ten years, when they get a little older, they will be competing on the world stage. But I still have a lot of years left, so they are going to have to compete against me still.”
– Hideki Matsuyama, Masters Champion