AUGUSTA, United States: Hideki Matsuyama won’t accept the title as Japan’s greatest-ever golfer, but after a quarter-century journey from child novice to historic Masters champion, the usually humble star will accept some praise.
“I can’t say I’m the greatest,” Matsuyama said. “However, I’m the first to win a major, and if that’s the bar, then I’ve set it.”
Matsuyama won the 85th Masters on Sunday, becoming the first Japanese man to win a major title and capping a 25-year dream that started when his father began teaching him the sport when he was only four years old, even switching schools to boost his golf.
While the heroics of 15-time major winner Tiger Woods would catch his attention, Matsuyama recalled Japan’s baseball stars having a bigger impact in his youth.
“The people that I admired were mainly baseball players: (Yu) Darvish, (Shohei) Ohtani, (Kenta) Maeda,” Matsuyama said of three Japanese stars now on US Major League Baseball clubs.
“As far as golf, not so much. Hopefully now others will be inspired for what happened here today and follow in my footsteps.”
Matsuyama’s path took him to Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai, where he honed the skills he used to win the 2010 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship and earn a berth at the 2011 Masters.
In his first trip to Augusta National, Matsuyama won the Silver Cup as low amateur and shared 27th.
In 2011, he won the World University Games title and led Japan’s gold medal team. He then won the 2011 Asia-Pacific crown as well and placed 54th at the 2012 Masters, becoming the first amateur to make consecutive Masters cuts since Manny Zerman in 1991-92.
Four months later, Matsuyama was named the amateur world number one. Eight months after that, he turned professional.
Matsuyama shared 10th at the 2013 US Open and cracked the top 50 in the world rankings as a result. In 2014, he won the Jack Nicklaus-hosted Memorial Tournament, the first US PGA win by a Japanese golfer in six years.
With his victory at Augusta National, Matsuyama now has six career US PGA triumphs, matching the total achieved by all other Japanese players on the US tour.
In 2016, Matsuyama captured the WGC event at Shanghai.
A year later, he finished second at the US Open and jumped to a career-high second in the world golf rankings. Also in 2017, Matsuyama won his second title at Phoenix and the WGC event in Akron, but that marked his last victory before an 87-start drought that ended with his green jacket.
In a bid to snap his win drought, Matsuyama began working with coach Hidenori Mezawa.
“The last three years, there have been different probably reasons why I haven’t been able to win,” he said.
“I have a coach with me now from Japan. It has been a great help, a great benefit. Things that I was feeling in my swing, I could talk to him about that, and he always gives me good feedback. He has a good eye.
“It’s like having a mirror for my swing. We worked hard, and hopefully now it’s all starting to come together.”
Matsuyama, followed by Japanese media wherever he plays, pulled it all together for one fabulous week.
“I came to Augusta with little or no expectations, but as the week progressed, as I practiced, especially on Wednesday, I felt something again,” he said.
“I found something in my swing. And when that happens, the confidence returns. And so I started the tournament with a lot of confidence.”
He ended it with something new for his wardrobe and a place for the ages in Japanese sporting history.
And among those happiest for his triumph were his rivals.
“Hideki, not only is he at the top, he’s a classy guy,” England’s Paul Casey said.
“He has got a humble attitude about him,” said 2012 US Open winner Webb Simpson.
“Over there he is a big star, but there’s a humility to him that is pretty cool to see in someone who has that much attention on him. Yeah, he’s handled it well. I mean, it’s been a long career already.”
South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open champion, warns he is quiet but deadly.
“Hideki is obviously quiet. He’s doing his own thing, but it’s all down to business when it comes to the golf course,” Oosthuizen said.
“He’s a fun guy. He’s nice being around with. He’s all around just a great player.”