Reticent superstar becomes Japan's new hero as millions watch Hideki Matsuyama the master from home

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Japan - AP
Japan - AP

The people of Ehime Prefecture, 13 time zones from Augusta, had woken at 3.40am to see if their golfing icon could become the first Japanese winner of a major. Not that the unsociable hour was an imposition. For when it comes to following Hideki Matsuyama, the reticent superstar with the staccato swing, almost any excess is indulged. Once it was Ryo Ishikawa who had this poster-boy effect, drawing battalions of Tokyo journalists to his every event. But for the past eight years their attention has been monopolised by Matsuyama, who ended their wait for glory with this cussed piece of front-running.

Under suffocating pressure from his 126 million countryfolk, Matsuyama absorbed it all, as his six-shot lead dwindled to one, and even as playing partner Xander Schauffele mounted an almighty back-nine charge. Matsuyama had enjoyed a ceremony inside the Butler Cabin once before, when he was the leading amateur in 2011, but nothing compared to the strain he felt standing on the first tee last with almost his entire nation watching him via the Tokyo Broadcasting System.

While he sprayed his opening drive horribly right, straight into the dogwoods, he navigated the stumble nonchalantly, shoring up and quickly extending his lead with a poise his pursuers could not hope to match. A detour into the water at the 15th threatened to derail him, only for Schauffele to implode at the next hole. At the heart of it all, Matsuyama kept his precious sense of peace.

Weary of having his every move shadowed by Japanese reporters, he has benefited these past four days from the drastic cuts to reporters on site due to Covid restrictions. “It’s not my favourite thing to do, to stand and answer questions,” he acknowledged. “With fewer media, it has been a lot less stressful for me.”

The effect of a clearer head on his golf has been appreciable. In patches at this Masters, Matsuyama has produced brushstrokes the envy of anything painted on golf’s most pristine canvas. When the sirens sounded for a storm that interrupted his Saturday progress, he retired to his car to play video games. He returned to deliver a back nine of 30, a sequence of outrageous quality, where his towering iron shots received their due reward on the rain-soaked greens. As he switched to course management mode for his final round, he remained serene, put at his ease by Schauffele speaking to him in Japanese, a reflection of the Californian’s cultural heritage on his mother’s side.

Hideki Matsuyama and Xander Schauffele. - REUTERS
Hideki Matsuyama and Xander Schauffele. - REUTERS

Matsuyama, at 29, gives the impression he would rather be anywhere else than under the microscope of his homeland. As a public figure, he would make even Anthony Kim, the one-time heir to Tiger Woods who became such a recluse that his agent had to clarify “he’s not living under a bridge”, look like a party animal. The Japanese media who stalk him have divined almost nothing about his private life in eight years. In 2017, at a tournament on Long Island, he announced that he had become a father. This came as a jolt to his inquisitors, who knew neither that his wife was pregnant nor even that he was married at all.

As he took on this defining test, the crack-of-dawn nerves of his fans 7,000 miles away were calmed. The magnitude of this Matsuyama victory was colossal for Japan. When it comes to golf-crazed countries, it ranks second in the world, with one course for every 57,000 people. It is all the more extraordinary given the game’s relatively limited history in the country. Not until 1904, when a British tradesman, Arthur Hesketh Groom, built a four-hole layout on the outskirts of Kobe was any firm golfing footprint established.

Hideki Matsuyama of Japan poses with the Masters Trophy during the Green Jacket Ceremony after winning the Masters at Augusta - Getty
Hideki Matsuyama of Japan poses with the Masters Trophy during the Green Jacket Ceremony after winning the Masters at Augusta - Getty

Since then, an obsession has been unleashed. First, Emperor Hirohito would retreat for the odd round with his wife at a private Tokyo club. Then, as a Japanese middle class burgeoned during the postwar recovery, more disposable income was spent on this exotic leisure pursuit. For its finest players, international success came quickly. But what a restless public craved above all else was a major champion to call its own.

A decade ago, the anointed contender was Ishikawa. The teenage Ryo cultivated a more vibrant persona than Matsuyama, once announcing himself in electric yellow trousers with the words: “Hello America, I’m Ryo.” As a young talent, he was exhilarating, shooting a closing 58 to win on the Japan Tour aged 18. But the relentless exposure turned him quickly from the “bashful prince” to the forgotten man. Once the results dried up, Hideki hysteria took over.

At last, that faith has been repaid. Already, Matsuyama’s year is complicated by his starring role in this summer’s Tokyo Olympics. A Masters triumph elevates his idol status to an overwhelming intensity. All this considered, he shouldered his burden with quite extraordinary composure and grace.