The Masters 2021: Hideki Matsuyama's triumph gives wings to Japanese challenge, inspires Asia's golf community
'You know it's really inspiring is really amazing. I'm very happy for him. He's a fantastic person, like I said. He is really great for Japan, and for golf. You know the Olympics are coming to Japan and we have the current Masters champion, representing Japan.
Everyone on the PGA Tour knows Hideki Matsuyama as a quiet person, who has a permanent smile on his face. And he seems to take both success and failure with a sense of equanimity, or at least that’s what it seems, but India’s Anirban Lahiri, who plies his trade on the PGA Tour, knows Matsuyama a little more than many others.
Lahiri, who has teed up at the Masters three times, said, “I’m fortunate enough to know him a little bit, he’s just a fantastic guy. He doesn’t say much and he’s soft-spoken. He’s got a big heart and truly loves the game and playing his best all the time. I know how much emotion he probably felt and still feels. It’s probably still sinking in for him.”
“Hideki is very measured and calm but he's a very emotional person he is someone who has a big heart, and someone who really cares. He thinks deeply about the game and loves the game. I know how badly he has been wanting to do well, especially at the Masters.”
Lahiri and Matsuyama had formed a bond of sorts in 2015 when they were both part of the International Team at the Presidents Cup. Golf, by nature, is an individual sport, but as Lahiri once told me, events like the Presidents Cup or the EurAsia Cup (between Asia and Europe) that he played three times, create a special bond between some. It was the same for Lahiri and Matsuyama, who had come from far-off lands to seek golfing success in the United States.
A couple of months later they played the star-studded Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. As Bubba Watson won the title, Matsuyama and Lahiri shared 17th place in a field of 18. But Matsuyama closed the week with a 66 and I still remember Lahiri telling me then in December 2016, “Watch out for Hideki. He is special.”
Exactly a year later at the same course in Albany, Lahiri did not make the field, but Matsuyama was back and from being right at the bottom in December 2015, he had scaled to the very top as the winner in December 2016 as he rode a sequence of four wins in five starts – the worst being a second place. He won twice in Japan, WGC in China, and the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. The run continued in 2017 and he reached as high as World No 2.
Between 2015 and 2017 he had four Top-5s in Majors and a T-7.
After a win at the WGC-Bridgestone, his second WGC, he did not win anything. Not until he took the Green Jacket,
This week Lahiri recalled, “I remember, I think it was about four years ago, and he had a quite few wins behind him in the 2016-2017 period including at the star-studded Hero World Challenge. Coming into the Masters, there was a lot of hype but he didn't play well by his standards (he was T-11 in 2017 after being 5th in 2015. And T7 in 2016). He was disappointed. The Masters is one place he has always wanted to do well.”
As for seeing Masters from his sitting room, Lahiri added, “I did see quite a bit of the Masters, I think they were quite a few amazing things to see, all very inspiring. The comeback from Justin Rose on Thursday was spectacular, to say the least, it (the course) was probably playing the hardest that day seeing that it was some amazing golf, the highest level of golf you'll ever see.
"And, then there was Hideki (Matsuyama) on Saturday. The way he played, well actually the whole week was amazing. But especially on Saturday, he seemed to take it by the horns and just hit shot after shot after shot. It was pretty intense and so amazing to watch. On Sunday it was nerve-wracking for him, more than anyone else. But a lot of us really really wanted him to win, myself included.
"Yeah, it was tense to see him stumble a little bit in the end but what a performance. I know he's not going to say much. But I know it will take some time to sink even for him, though he always he knew he was capable.”
He went on, “As a friend and as a Presidents Cup partner and as a fellow International Team and fellow Asian, I had so many reasons to cheer for him to root for him and to see him get it done, and wear a green jacket, it was great.
"You know it's really inspiring is really amazing. I'm very happy for him. He's a fantastic person, like I said. He is really great for Japan, and for golf. You know the Olympics are coming to Japan and we have the current Masters champion, representing Japan.
“This is going to be amazing Japanese golf, Asian golf, and global golf. I wish him even more success in the times to come and you know hopefully a lot of us and can follow in his footsteps.”
Asian golfers rooting for Matsuyama included Si Woo Kim, who won the Players in 2017, and Korea’s Byeong Hun An, who feels Hideki’s win could lead to a Japanese explosion at the highest level in golf.
When YE Yang delivered Asia’s maiden major title in the men’s competition following a memorable victory at the 2009 PGA Championship, An was amongst the throng of Asian kids who were instantly inspired.
Japanese players are even more ecstatic, as Satoshi Kodaira said, “Hideki winning the Masters is an amazing and historic achievement that he did on behalf of Japan. It’s inspirational and definitely provides added motivation to the Japanese players competing in Japan and to those of us, myself included, playing in America to go out and try and win.”
Some years back, Ryo Ishikawa hit the spotlight and somehow the pressure seemed to have got to him. Though he won a lot in Japan, he was unable to make a mark in the US and he is now trying again.
But there are young guns like newly turned pro Takumi Kanaya and amateur Keita Nakajima, who wants to finish college before turning pro. Only three Japanese players have held the No 1 position in World Amateurs. The first was Matsuyama, who also won the Asian Amateurs in 2010 and 2011, which is how he played the Masters first. Then it was Takumi Kanaya, who was Asian Amateurs in 2018 and was also World No 1 amateur for 55 weeks. And then Nakajima, who was second to Kanaya in 2018, became World No 1 amateur in late 2020 taking over from Kanaya. Nakajima is still in the third year in college in Japan.
So, with Matsuyama acting as the inspiration, watch out for the Japanese challenge in world golf.
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