AUGUSTA, Ga. — Japan has its first ever green jacket and, for that matter, its first ever men's major championship.
On Sunday, Hideki Matsuyama, blazing a trail started by the likes of Jumbo Ozaki, Isao Aoki and Tommy Nakajima before him, ended the Japanese drought, winning the Masters.
Slipping on the green jacket has been a decade in the making for Matsuyama, who ever since winning low amateur here at Augusta in 2011 has carried the golfing hopes of a nation on his shoulders. It's a pressure that Matsuyama cannot avoid, or at least not during normal times.
Wherever he goes, Japanese media are singularly focussed on him. It's ever-present, whether he finishes first, last or somewhere in the middle. And it's not something he always enjoys. COVID and its travel restrictions, however, have provided him with a bit a reprieve this week.
"Being in front of the media is still difficult. I'm glad the media are here covering it, but it's not my favorite thing to do, to stand and answer questions," he said after Saturday's round. "And so with fewer media, it's been a lot less stressful for me, and I've enjoyed this week."
Matsuyama, 29, started the final round in the lead by four, saw Will Zalatoris trim it to a single stroke early on Sunday and then did what he's done all week — hit fairways, give himself birdie opportunities and let everyone else muck things up behind him.
The lone hiccup came at 15, when Matsuyama sent a scare that likely resonated all the way across The Land of the Rising Sun. Leading by four with only four to play, Matsuyama needed only to avoid disaster to claim the green jacket when ... disaster nearly struck. He flew his second shot on the par-5 over the green and into the nearby water. A bogey coupled with playing partner Xander Schauffele's birdie trimmed the lead to two.
Schauffele, himself a major winner in the making, took all that momentum to the par-3 16th and promptly plunked his tee shot into the water, then flew his third over the green, hit his fourth on and two-putted for a triple-bogey six.
"I was coming hot," Schauffele said after. "... I hit a good shot, I committed to it, it turned out bad."
However high the pressure ratcheted up on Matsuyama between the 15th green and 16th tee had suddenly been relieved.
Zalatoris, the rookie who never cracked, kept some level of pressure applied. A birdie on 18 pushed him to 9-under, two back of Matsuyama at the time.
Matsuyama would give one back, but not two.
Par. Bogey. Green jacket. Drought no more.
"I'm really happy," Matsuyama said. "My nerves really didn't start on the second nine. It was right from the start today, right to the very last putt.
"... Hopefully I'll be a pioneer in this and many other Japanese will follow."
An abnormal tournament
The week began with a fair simulation of normalcy. The Augusta National Women’s Amateur and the Drive, Chip & Putt championships had gone off smoothly days before, and patrons were streaming onto the course first thing Monday morning. COVID protocols were everywhere — masks on patrons, no grandstands, no leaving of chairs permitted, sharply reduced overall capacity — but the sense inside the gates was that we’re slowly edging back toward a pre-2020 feel.
Perhaps it was that significant lack of patrons — by some estimates, Augusta National was only about 20 percent of capacity — or perhaps it was the absence of mainstays like the Par 3 contest, but there was a muted feel to this year’s Masters. Everything was in its proper place — the azaleas had bloomed, the plastic Masters cups were full, the sun reflected off the brilliant white clubhouse, the Big Oak rustled in the gentle breeze — but in its early days, this particular tournament felt more like a dress rehearsal than the real thing.
Thursday began with a welcome tribute to Lee Elder, the first Black man to play in the Masters. Ringed by friends and family, Elder didn’t participate in the ceremonial tee shot, leaving that to Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, but raised a hand in gratitude. His cause and his inspiration would resonate across the country, as NBA players including Steph Curry wore hats and sneakers over the weekend honoring Elder.
Once the tournament itself began, big names from the world of sports made their way to Augusta National. Patrick Mahomes, Trevor Lawrence, Larry Fitzgerald and Nick Saban were all spotted on the course. But as for golf’s biggest stars? They didn’t do much to step up on the biggest stage:
Defending champion Dustin Johnson never got going and missed the cut, but still had to stick around for the green jacket ceremony.
Bryson DeChambeau talked another big game, and again Augusta National got the last word.
Rory McIlroy continued to flail, missing the cut for the first time since 2010 and shelving his hopes of a career grand slam for another year.
Justin Thomas forced his way up into the conversation late Saturday afternoon, but he judged the course poorly after the rain delay and ended up triple-bogeying the 13th, giving away 4 or 5 strokes to the field. His chances at winning trickled away just like his golf ball:
That meant the leaderboard was full of who’s-that-guys and I-remember-hims. Rose set the pace early, going out Thursday in a fiery 7-under that gave him his fourth first-round lead — tied with Jack Nicklaus for the most ever — and kept him four strokes clear of the field.
Also on Thursday, Tommy Fleetwood nailed a never-in-doubt hole-in-one on 16, and McIlroy set himself up for some future therapy by hitting his father with a golf ball. Beyond that, the most excitement from Thursday came from media and fans trying to figure out how to pronounce “Bezuidenhout.”
The return of Spieth
Friday brought the welcome return of a long-gone Masters icon: Jordan Spieth, who was coming off his first victory anywhere in the world in nearly four years. Spieth blended his trademark collection of baffling mistakes and brilliant saves to end up just two strokes off the lead. Rose ended the day where he began, at -7, but now he had company snuggled up much closer. Brian Harman and Zalatoris were just a single stroke behind, with Marc Leishman and Spieth two back.
Aside from the usual where-will-the-cut-fall anxiety of Friday afternoon, two separate incidents added a bit of strangeness to the tournament. Si-Woo Kim broke his putter in frustration on the 14th hole, even though he was just three strokes off the lead, and putted with his three-wood the rest of the way in. Matthew Wolff somehow signed for an incorrect number on his scorecard, and got disqualified from the Masters … which ended up being more of a ceremonial gesture than anything substantive, since Wolff was well past the cut line and headed home already.
Moving Day arrived under cloudy skies, and nobody moved more than Matsuyama. Well, except for Billy Horschel:
A 77-minute rain delay halted proceedings when the leaders were at the turn, and the course softened and slowed considerably. No one took more advantage than Matsuyama, who went six-under over the final eight holes, including a clutch eagle at 15, to take a four-stroke lead into Sunday. The highlight of the day was a dizzying 90-second stretch when Schauffele rolled in an eagle to tie the lead, Rose curled a long putt to retake the lead, and Matsuyama buried that eagle to snag the lead out of Rose’s hands.
Holding a lead on Saturday at Augusta means a long wait until Sunday’s tee time, during which it became clear that there were red numbers to be had. Jon Rahm burst into the top 10 with a birdie-eagle start. (Horschel burst into a thousand pieces with another from-the-creek shot on 13.) Patrick Reed also eagled to get to -3, and it was clear from the start that this would be a sprint, not a coronation.
Win one for Japan
Matsuyama put his first shot of the day into the trees on the right side of the first hole, and he would go on to bogey. Meanwhile, up ahead, new daddy Rahm was harnessing that new daddy mojo, carving stroke after stroke off Matsuyama's lead.
Spieth slid down the leaderboard after two straight bogeys on holes 5 and 6. Zalatoris kept it close, birdieing holes 2 and 8 to stay within two strokes of Matsuyama as he made the turn, but he needed more than a flat back nine to get back into contention.
Matsuyama, meanwhile, wasn't done padding his lead. Another brilliant approach on 8 led to another short birdie putt to bring him to 12 under. Then, just after Zalatoris bogeyed the 10th, Matsuyama birdied the 9th, taking a five-stroke lead into Augusta's second nine.
This, so they say, would be where the Masters truly begins. Only the Sunday charge (or fade) never fully materialized. Matsuyama's flier on 15 cost him only one shot, and even though he followed that up with another bogey, Schauffele's triple at 16 effectively ended the 2021 Masters.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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