TOKYO – Hideki Matsuyama has never been a fan of the spotlight. Although he became Japan’s most successful male golfer, he did his best to avoid the attention of every movement of other Japanese athletes who shone on the world stage.
But with his win Sunday at the Masters in Augusta, Ga., The glitter will now be inevitable. His victory, the first by a Japanese man in one of the biggest golf championships, is the fulfillment of a long-standing ambition for the country, and it guarantees that he will be crowned a national hero, with the worship and inquiry that follows .
Japan is a nation of avid golfers, and the status of the game as the preferred sport for the Western business and political elite has given it particular resonance. Success in sports has long been a critical measure of the world’s world position, with the United States and Europe often the standard by which Japan measures itself.
“We’ve always dreamed of winning the Masters,” said Andy Yamanaka, secretary general of the Japanese Golf Association. “It’s a very moving moment for all of us. I think a lot of people cried when he finished. ”
These tears partly reflect an island nation that considers itself smaller and less powerful than other large countries, even though it is the third largest economy in the world. This means that athletes who represent it worldwide are often hampered by expectations and pressures that exceed the playing field.
The country’s news media followed the exploitation of its athletes abroad with an intensity that some found unpleasant. When baseball player Ichiro Suzuki joined the Seattle Mariners, Japanese news organizations set up offices in the city that focused exclusively on him. Television stations broadcast seemingly obscure major league matches here in case a Japanese player appeared. Even modest performance by a Japanese NBA player can yield upsets.
Golf is no exception. Even during low-stakes tournaments, a struggle by Japanese reporters Matsuyama, 29, regularly stops, a measure of attention that the media-shy golfer apparently found overwhelming.
At Augusta, the pressure – at least from the news media – was blessed low. Restrictions on Covid-19 kept journalist attendance to a minimum, and the Japanese press appeared in small numbers. After Matsuyama ended Saturday’s third round with a four-stroke lead, he admitted to reporters that “with less media it was much less stressful for me.”
His victory was a major breakthrough for a country with the second largest number of golfers and courses. The game is a ubiquitous presence throughout the country, with the long green nets of lanes indicating the skyline of virtually every suburb. In 2019, the PGA added its first official tournament in Japan.
In the century since the game was introduced by foreign traders in Japan, the country has produced a number of top players, such as Masashi Ozaki and Isao Aoki. But so far only two major tournaments have been won, both women: Hisako Higuchi at the 1977 LPGA Championship and Hinako Shibuno at the 2019 British Women’s Open.
Earlier this month, another Japanese woman, Tsubasa Kajitani, won the second amateur women’s competition ever at Augusta National.
Matsuyama’s Masters victory was the crowning achievement of a journey that began at the age of 4 in his hometown, Matsuyama, – no relationship – on the southern island of Shikoku in Japan. His father, an amateur golfer who now runs a practice series, introduced him to the game.
He excelled in the sport as a teenager, and by 2011 he was the highest ranked amateur at the Masters. By 2017, he had won six PGA Tour events and was the No. 2 in the world, the highest ever for a Japanese golfer.
In recent years, however, he seemed to have hit a slump, haunted by an uneven short game and a tendency to bend under pressure, and he squandered nine’s greens on the back.
Throughout, Matsuyama led a golf-oriented private existence, while other athletes achieved media appearances and corporate endorsements. He deserved praise for a work ethic that sometimes led him to have a big tournament tournament with hours of work going on.
It seems he has no hobbies or interest in acquiring it. In 2017, he surprised the news media when he announced that his wife had given birth to the couple’s first child. Little did he even know he was married. No one ever asked, he explained.
When Donald J. Trump – a supporter of the game who would like to do presidential business on the links – visited Japan in 2017, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recruited Matsuyama for some golf diplomacy. The trio did not score, and Matsuyama – true to his nature – had little to say about the experience.
With his victory at Augusta, expectations of Matsuyama will increase dramatically. Media attention is likely to reach feverish heights in the coming weeks, and endorsements will remain.
Although golf has become popular in Japan in recent years, sports analysts are already speculating that Matsuyama’s victory could help fuel a revival in the game, which has rekindled interest in a pandemic-friendly sport that makes it easy to maintain a healthy social distance. . The Tokyo Olympics this summer will also draw attention to the game.
Munehiko Harada, president of the Osaka University of Sports and Health Sciences and an expert on sports marketing, said he hoped Matsuyama would use his victory to practice more golf diplomacy, and that it fueled the anti-Asian rhetoric and violence that flared up. will improve. during the pandemic.
“It would be great if the victory of Mr Matsuyama would alleviate negative feelings towards Asians in the United States and create a kind of momentum to respect each other,” he said, adding that he hoped President Biden would bring the golfer to the White House ahead of a scheduled meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga this week.
In comments to the news media, Suga praised the actions of Matsuyama and said that it “gave people all over Japan and touched deeply.”
The pressure is already on for Matsuyama to secure another victory for the country.
“I do not know his next goal, maybe another major win or a grand slam, but for the Japanese Golf Association it’s great news to get a gold medal at the Olympics,” said Yamanaka, the secretary general of the association, said.
The news reports speculated that Matsuyama would be set up to light the Olympic kettle during the Games’ opening ceremony in July.
Asked about the possibility at a news conference after his victory, Matsuyama disputed. Before he could commit to anything, he would have to check his schedule.
Hisako Ueno reported.