There is no other week in the golfing calendar year surrounded by more hype and excitement than The Masters. This year would prove to be historic for many reasons. The Masters tournament is traditionally opened on Thursday morning by a group of golfers (Honorary Starters) selected by The Masters tournament committee. Since inception of the Honorary Starter Ceremony in 1963, there have been only eight golfers to partake. Since the passing of Arnold Palmer in 2016, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player have done the honors of opening the tournament. In 2021, the first black man to participate in The Masters in 1975, Lee Elder, became the ninth person to participate in the Honorary Starter Ceremony. What began as a historic week, ended with the first Japanese and Asian champion, Hideki Matsuyama donning the Green Jacket.
Japan has a deep history and love for the game of golf. The presence of Japanese golfers playing on the PGA Tour dates all the way back to the 1929 Hawaiin Open, where Tomekichi “Tommy” Miyamoto (T13), Haruo “Jack” Yasuda (T17), and Kanekichi Nakamura (T22) competed for the first time. Speaking specifically to The Masters, Toichiro “Torchy” Toda and Seiha “Chick” Chin became the first Japanese participants, playing in the 1936 tournament two years after its inception. It may come as a surprise to many people reading that the Japanese Professional Golf Tour (JGTO) has been the third largest global professional golf tour for decades. Up until the early 2000’s we scarcely saw a Japanese golfer on the PGA Tour, many preferring to remain in their homeland when not participating in the majors and WGC events in which the highest ranked players were exempt. Throughout the years, Japan has produced some notable talent, namely from the all-time wins list on the JGTO, Masashi “Jumbo’ Ozaki (all-time leader with 94 wins), his brother Naomichi “Joe” Ozaki, Isao Aoki (the first Japanese-born player to win on the PGA Tour, the 1983 Sony Open in Hawaii), Tsuneyuki “Tommy” Nakajima (famous for when in contention at the 1978 Open Championship putting his ball into the Road Hole Bunker on the 17th at St. Andrews, going on to make a quadruple-bogey, for a short period dubbing the bunker ‘The Sands of Nakajima’), Shingo Katayama (famous for his cowboy hats), and further down the list Shigeki Maruyama (the second most wins on the PGA Tour by a Japanese player with 3 and having shot 58 in the first round of final qualifying for the 2000 US Open). More recently in 2007, Ryo Ishikawa stepped onto the golfing stage at the age of just 15, becoming the youngest male player to win a professional golf tournament on a major global golf tour. In his first ever event, as an amateur, Ishikawa outlasted Katsumasa Miyamoto by a shot at the Munsingwear Open KBS Cup outside of Okayama, Japan. Much was anticipated of Ishikawa’s arrival to the PGA Tour in 2009 but he was never able to live up to the hype and expectations bestowed upon him. Clear the stage, introducing Hideki Matsuyama.
The victory on Sunday for Matsuyama was monumental for the game of golf in so many ways. Becoming not just a first-time major champion but the first male Japanese golfer to win The Masters or any major championship. It is the first time a player has come full circle as a past champion of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship to go on and win The Masters. The Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship was a collaborative effort by the Augusta National Golf Club, The R&A, and Asia Pacific Golf Federation in 2009, the champion being offered an invitation to play in the following years’ Masters tournament. Matsuyama is the only two-time champion, winning in 2010 and 2011. The Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship was his introduction to Augusta National, helping pave the way for Sunday’s victory. Playing his first Masters at the age of 18 in 2011, and ten more Masters tournaments since, makes Matsuyama an Augusta veteran. A wealth of knowledge, experience and success, making Sunday’s result less surprising. It is only when you begin to weigh up the magnitude of what a victory would mean in his home country of Japan and the entire continent of Asia that you begin to ponder the immense pressure Matsuyama must have been feeling. Although his lead was cut early and quickly by American Will Zalatoris, Matsuyama remained calm and poised, extending his lead back out to six shots with just five holes to play. Momentarily, Matsuyama stumbled finding the water over the back of the 15th green, dropping two shots in two holes, a steadying par on 17 and a perfect drive up 18 enabled Matsuyama to enjoy the victory walk. The weight of what had happened sank in as he made his way to the scoring area from the 18th green with tears in his eyes, lifting The Masters monkey off the back of Japan and Asia, much like Adam Scott had done for Australia in 2013.
If the emotion and relief Matsuyama displayed after putting out wasn’t evidence enough for the stature of his victory then the gesture shown by his caddy, Shota Hayafuji on the 18th green certainly was. As is customary for the caddy of a winning player, Hayafuji had removed the flag from the 18th flagstick as his memento for the historic win. While replacing the flagstick in the cup, Hayafuji stood beside the flagstick, removing his cap and bowing to Augusta National back down the 18th fairway. This gesture alone is as inspiring as the victory itself. Bowing in Japan is a fundamental part of social etiquette, signifying respect and social rank. Hayafuji was showing Augusta National the respect it deserves, seemingly thanking it for its challenge and the reward it had bestowed upon both he and Matsuyama. The victory summed up best by Matsuyama himself,
“When the final putt went in, I really wasn’t thinking of anything. But when I saw my caddie, Shota, and hugged him, I was happy for him because this is his first victory on the bag. And then it started sinking in, the joy of being a Masters champion.”– Hideki Matsuyama, 2021 Masters Champion.
Golf is not something I do because it is just a job, it is the thing in my life I am most passionate about outside of my family. Moments like we saw on Sunday will constantly remind us why the game of golf is so great. A tradition like no other and one we are already counting the days down on for next year. A historic Masters week and one we won’t soon forget!