TOKYO – Hideki Matsuyama has never been a fan of the spotlight. Even as he rose to become Japan’s most successful male golfer, he did his best to avoid the attention paid to every move of other Japanese athletes who shone on the world stage.
But with his victory on Sunday at the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, the dazzling will now be unavoidable. His victory, the first of a Japanese in one of the main golf championships, is the fulfillment of a long-held ambition for the country, and it guarantees that he will be celebrated as a national hero, with the adoration and the ensuing control.
Japan is a nation of avid golfers, and the game’s status as the sport of choice for the Western economic and political elite has given it special resonance. Success in the sport has long been a critical indicator of the country’s global standing, with the United States and Europe often being the standard by which Japan measures itself.
“We have always dreamed of winning the Masters,” said Andy Yamanaka, Secretary General of the Japan Golf Association. “This is a very emotional moment for all of us. I think a lot of people cried when he finished.
These tears reflect, in part, an island nation that sees itself as smaller and less powerful than other major countries, even though it is the third largest economy in the world. This means that the athletes who represent it globally are often overwhelmed with expectations and pressures that transcend the playing field.
The country’s news media followed the exploits of its athletes abroad with an intensity that some have found disconcerting. When baseball star Ichiro Suzuki joined the Seattle Mariners, Japanese news agencies set up offices in the city devoted exclusively to covering him. TV stations here are showing seemingly obscure major league matches here in case a Japanese player appears. Even the modest performance of a Japanese NBA player can make headlines.
Golf is no exception. Even in low-stakes tournaments, a group of Japanese journalists often drag Matsuyama, 29, a degree of attention the shy media golfer seems to have found overwhelming.
In Augusta, the pressure – at least from the news media – was thankfully low. Covid-19 restrictions had kept journalists’ attendance to a minimum, and the Japanese press had arrived in small numbers. After finishing Saturday’s third round with a four-stroke lead, Matsuyama admitted to reporters that “with less media it was a lot less stressful for me.”
His victory was a major breakthrough for a country with the second most players and golf courses in the world. Gambling is a ubiquitous presence across the country, with the large green nets of the driving range marking the horizon of virtually every suburb. In 2019, the PGA added its first official tournament in Japan.
In the century since the game’s introduction to Japan by foreign merchants, the country has produced a number of top players, including Masashi Ozaki and Isao Aoki. But so far only two have won majors, the two women: Hisako Higuchi at the 1977 LPGA Championship and Hinako Shibuno at the 2019 British Open Women’s.
Earlier this month, another Japanese, Tsubasa Kajitani, won the second female amateur competition at Augusta National.
The Matsuyama Masters victory was the crowning achievement of a journey that began at the age of 4 to his unrelated hometown of Matsuyama on the southern Japanese island of Shikoku. His father, an amateur golfer who now runs a driving range, introduced him to the game.
He excelled in the sport as a teenager, and in 2011 he was the top-ranked amateur at the Masters. By 2017, he had won six PGA tournaments and was ranked No.2 in the world, the highest on record for a Japanese golfer.
In recent years, however, it seemed to have hit a slump, haunted by uneven short play and a tendency to flex under pressure, wasting dominant runs on the nine greens of the last nine.
Through it all, Matsuyama has led a private life focused on golf, while other athletes have racked up media appearances and corporate backers. He earned praise for a work ethic that at times resulted in him finishing an appearance in a major tournament with hours of work on his swing.
He seems to have no hobbies or interest in acquiring them. In 2017, he surprised the media by announcing that his wife had given birth to the couple’s first child. Few people even knew he was married. No one had ever asked for it, he explained.
When Donald J. Trump – an avid gamer who enjoyed conducting presidential affairs on ties – visited Japan in 2017, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recruited Matsuyama for a golf diplomacy. The trio didn’t score and Matsuyama – true to his nature – had little to say about the experience.
With his victory in Augusta, expectations for Matsuyama will rise dramatically. Media attention is likely to peak in the coming weeks, and offers of endorsement will be pouring in.
Although golf has fallen in popularity in Japan in recent years, sports analysts are already speculating that Matsuyama’s victory could help fuel a resurgence of the game, which has sparked renewed interest as a pandemic-friendly sport that facilitates the maintenance of a healthy social distance. . The Tokyo Olympics this summer will also draw attention to the game.
Munehiko Harada, president of Osaka University of Sports and Health Sciences and sports marketing expert, said he hoped Matsuyama would use his victory to engage in more golf diplomacy, and that this would improve the anti-Asian rhetoric and violence that erupted. during the pandemic.
“It would be great if Mr. Matsuyama’s victory allayed negative feelings towards Asians in the United States and created some kind of momentum to respect each other,” he said, adding that he hoped the president Biden is reportedly inviting the golfer to the White House ahead of a scheduled meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga this week.
In a media address, Suga praised Matsuyama’s performance, saying it “gave courage and deeply moved people across Japan.”
The pressure is already on for Matsuyama to win another victory for the nation.
“I don’t know his next goal, maybe winning another major tournament or achieving a grand slam, but for the Japan Golf Association, getting a gold medal at the Olympics would be great news,” Yamanaka said. , the general secretary of the association.
Reports speculated that Matsuyama would be drafted to light the Olympic cauldron during the Games’ opening ceremony in July.
Asked about the possibility at a press conference after his victory, Matsuyama objected. Before he could commit to anything, he said, he would have to check his schedule.
Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.