A Historic Week
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 known as Honorary Starters. Honorary Starters are selected by The Masters tournament committee. Since the beginning of the Honorary Starter Ceremony in 1963, there have been only eight golfers to partake. Specifically, since the passing of Arnold Palmer in 2016, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player have done the honors of opening the tournament. In 2021, Lee Elder became the ninth person to participate in the Honorary Starter Ceremony. Lee Elder was the first black man to participate in The Masters in 1975. What began as a historic week, ended with the first Japanese and Asian champion, Hideki Matsuyama donning the Green Jacket.
Japanese Golfers Throughout History
Japan has a deep history and love for the game of golf. In fact, the presence of Japanese golfers playing on the PGA Tour dates all the way back to the 1929 Hawaiin Open. In 1929, 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. They played in the 1936 tournament two years after its inception. One point that’s important to realize is that the Japanese Professional Golf Tour (JGTO) is the third largest global professional golf tour. In fact, it has been for decades. Up until the early 2000’s we rarely saw a Japanese golfer on the PGA Tour. Many preferred to remain in their homeland when not participating in the majors and WGC events. The highest ranked players were exempt from these events.
JGTO All-Time Wins
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) heads this list. He’s followed by his brother Naomichi “Joe” Ozaki.
Isao Aoki was the first Japanese-born player to win on the PGA Tour, the 1983 Sony Open in Hawaii.
Tsuneyuki “Tommy” Nakajima was famous for his performance at the 1978 Open Championship. He putt his ball into the Road Hole Bunker on the 17th at St. Andrews. Then, went on to make a quadruple-bogey. For a short the bunker was dubbed ‘The Sands of Nakajima’.
In addition, there’s Shingo Katayama who was famous for his cowboy hats.
Then, further down the list is Shigeki Maruyama, who has the second most wins on the PGA Tour by a Japanese player with 3. He shot 58 in the first round of final qualifying for the 2000 US Open.
A More Recent History
More recently in 2007, Ryo Ishikawa stepped onto the golfing stage. At just 15 he became 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. This was at the Munsingwear Open KBS Cup outside of Okayama, Japan. Many had high hopes for Ishikawa’s arrival to the PGA Tour in 2009. However, he was never able to live up to the hype and expectations placed upon him. Clear the stage, introducing Hideki Matsuyama.
A Monumental Victory
The victory on Sunday for Matsuyama was huge for the game of golf in many ways. He is not just a first-time major champion. He is the first male Japanese golfer to win The Masters or any major championship. It is the first time a player has come full circle like this; a past champion of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship has gone on to win The Masters.
The Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship was a combined effort by the Augusta National Golf Club, The R&A, and Asia Pacific Golf Federation in 2009. The champion is 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. Matsuyama is an Augusta veteran. He played his first Masters at the age of 18 in 2011. He went on to play ten more Masters tournaments since. To put it another way, a wealth of knowledge, experience and success make Sunday’s result less surprising. But consider the magnitude of what a victory would mean in his home country of Japan, or even the entire continent of Asia. This is the immense pressure Matsuyama must have been feeling.
Analyzing Matsuyama’s Game
Although his lead was cut early and quickly by American Will Zalatoris, Matsuyama remained calm and poised. Matsuyama extended 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. However, a steadying par on 17 and a perfect drive up 18 allowed 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. He lifted The Masters monkey off the back of Japan and Asia, much like Adam Scott had done for Australia in 2013.
An Emotional Gesture
If the emotion and relief Hideki 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. To emphasize, 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 earned by 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. That is to say, 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!