AUGUSTA — The green-jacketed blue bloods at Augusta National are forever going on about growing golf globally. It’s a seed they have planted far and wide for years now. And all it takes is one look around this joint to know that what they plant tends to bloom in profusion.

ExploreMichael Cunningham: Hideki Matsuyama becomes golf legend

Thus, behold Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama Sunday, in full flower.

In what amounted to a moderate stress test by this tournament’s rigorous standards, Matsuyama won a Masters for himself, for his country. His was a victory that needed to be viewed from a series of very different perspectives, from tight and up close to practically a space station vantage in order to take in an entire nation.

His one-shot victory was the first ever in the Masters by a Japanese male. Now, finally, every inhabited continent has a representative in the Masters champions locker room. All that’s left is for some Antarctic penguins to develop a strong short game.

It was a big week for Japanese golf here. Last Saturday, Tsubasa Kajitani won the second Augusta National Women’s Amateur. All genders accounted for.

“It’s thrilling to think that there are a lot of youngsters in Japan watching today,” Matsuyama said. “Hopefully in five, 10 years, when they get a little older, some of them will be competing on the world stage.

“But I still have a lot of years left, so they are going to have to compete against me still. But I’m happy for them because hopefully they will be able to follow in my footsteps.”

Japanese players have been coming to the Masters since 1936, when Toichiro “Torchy” Toda and Seisui “Chick” Chin were two of only four international players in the field. Toshi Izawa finished in a tie for fourth in 2001 and Shingo Katayama — the cat in the hat know for stylish headwear — was fourth in ‘09. But they’ve never seen a player like Matsuyama around here before.

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Augusta National has a long-standing and nurturing relationship with its new champion. He qualified for the first two of his 10 Masters appearances through the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, an event organized by the hosts of the Masters and the British Open as part of the grow-the-game agenda. That relationship got a whole lot more personal Sunday. Like part of the lore personal.

Matsuyama began the day with a four-shot lead, and it turned out he used every bit of it. When he’s on, as Jordan Spieth said, “It’s a real stripe show.” The real striping of the ball happened Saturday, when Matsuyama emerged from a rain delay, went 3-under on his last five holes to finish off what was the co-low round of the tournament, a 65. That was the capital he’d live on throughout Sunday.

Hideki Matsuyama reacts after hitting into the water on the 15th fairway during the final round of the Masters Tournament Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Hideki Matsuyama reacts after hitting into the water on the 15th fairway during the final round of the Masters Tournament Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

His wasn’t a perfect victory by any means. He butchered the par-5 15th, splashing his second shot into the pond back of the green. Then threw in a couple other bogeys over the final three holes to card a 1-over 73, the highest fourth-round score by a Masters winner since Trevor Immelman’s 75 in 2008. It’s just that no one else could get a strong enough grip on Sunday to apply real, sustained pressure.

His lead would swell to as much as six shots as he was entering Amen Corner. Playing with Xander Schauffele, he saw that shrink to as little as two after his over-cooked shot to 15. Why the aggression, rather than laying up to that par 5? “Xander had made three birdies in a row. Hitting first (to the green at 15) and with his momentum, I wanted to birdie 15,” he said through his interpreter. As often happens in this game, didn’t exactly play out as planned..

With his fourth straight birdie at 15, Schauffele stood on the tee at the par-3 16th just two back of Matsuyama. Now, he could really tighten the screws. Instead, he came unhinged. Schauffele found the water left of the green and didn’t come up for air until taking a triple bogey 6.

Schauffele blamed it on the breeze. “I hit a perfect 8-iron. It was 184 yards. I can hit my 8-iron 180 yards out here. I turned it right to left. The wind was into left to right. It got smoked and eaten up. You could kind of see it. The ball hovered there,” he said.

Whatever, Matsuyama had all the advantage he needed. He went to No. 18 with a two-shot lead needing to just keep it on the planet after his tee shot split the fairway.

It’s just that none of the serious challengers were able to push their score into the 60s, which seemed to be the least required to gain any real ground.

Of the four players closest to Matsuyama at the beginning of the day, only the least likely to handle the moment did so. Masters rookie Will Zalatoris, greener here than the grass, put up a very tough-minded 70 to finish second at 9-under.

Will Zalatoris hits out of the bunker on the 15th hole during the Masters Tournament Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Will Zalatoris hits out of the bunker on the 15th hole during the Masters Tournament Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

As for the other three — Schauffele (72 Sunday/tied for third at 7-under for the week), Marc Leishman (73/6-under) and Justin Rose (74/5-under) — they saved their high rounds of the week for the end. That is not the recommended way to come out of this thing smelling like a fresh-mown lawn.

The Great Hall of Forgotten Pre-Tournament Favorites also gained some significant additions Sunday:

Bryson DeChambeau Sunday put up his third round of 75 or worse, finished 5-over and in a tie for 46th, his worst-ever finish in five appearances.

Justin Thomas couldn’t recover from his triple bogey on No. 13 Saturday, went over par again Sunday (73) and finished T-21.

Jon Rahm had best round of the day, 66, but teed off 2 hours 10 minutes before the leaders, not a time slot where real contenders are found. He did climb from T-21 to T-5 Sunday.

Spieth sputtered with three bogeys on his first six holes, rallied to shoot 70, good enough to tie for third.

And that also left him in position to speak for his peers as to Matsuyama’s game.

Xander Schauffele (left) congratulates Hideki Matsuyama for winning the 85th Masters Tournament Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. Matsuyama is the first Japanese player to win a major golf tournament. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Xander Schauffele (left) congratulates Hideki Matsuyama for winning the 85th Masters Tournament Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. Matsuyama is the first Japanese player to win a major golf tournament. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Credit: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Speaking before Matsuyama completed his round, Spieth testified: “He’s got a lot of pressure on himself today. I remember the feeling on a four-shot lead, and he’s got Japan on his back and maybe Asia on his back. I can’t imagine how that was trying to sleep on that, even with somebody who’s had so much success.

“I think the way he’s been able to withstand it – if he’s able to finish this one off – it’s really good for the game of golf globally. He’s a great young player who inevitably was going to win major championships. I know it’s his first win in quite a while (it had been 93 tournaments since the last of his five PGA Tour victories), so I can also relate to that. I can only imagine, if he closes this out, how that’s going to feel.”

A modest man by nature, they say, Matsuyama puffed up a little when asked if this breakthrough victory made him Japan’s greatest player.

“I can’t say I’m the greatest,” he said. “But I am the first to win a major. If that’s the bar, I set it.”

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