Could this be Matsuyama’s year to break through and win Masters?

Hideki Matsuyama watches his 17th tee shot during round one of the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Hideki Matsuyama watches his 17th tee shot during round one of the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

In my mind, Hideki Matsuyama is much older than 29. Athletes like him can alter the perception of time because they become so good while so young and stay good. Matsuyama has won some big tournaments and been on a lot of leaderboards. It seems to me that he’s been a PGA Tour regular much longer than eight years.

That’s why I was surprised to learn Matsuyama never led after any round of the Masters in seven previous starts as a pro at Augusta National. He finished 14th or better four times and hovered around the lead. But he never had a piece of it once all scores are posted. That didn’t change on Thursday at at his eighth Masters.

Matsuyama was the clubhouse co-leader with Brian Harman after shooting a 3-under 69. Justin Rose later topped that with a 65, his best-ever round among 59 at Augusta. Rose had at least a share of the the Masters lead three other times after round one, most recently in 2008, and didn’t win the tournament.

Matsuyama is in contention after his best round-one finish in 10 tries at the Masters (he played as an amateur in 2011 and ’12). He was 13th after 18 holes in 2016 and went on to finish tied for seventh. In November Matsuyama was 10th after the first round and sixth after the second.

Matsuyama had a relatively breezy day while hitting 10 of 14 fairways. He made eagle at the par-5 seventh after striping his second shot from 246 yards away from the pin to within 25 feet. Matsuyama’s only bogey was at No. 17. That was his only three-putt of the day.

“It’s my 10th year, but I’ve never seen the greens so firm and fast,” Matsuyama said through an interpreter. “So it was like a new course for me playing today, and I was fortunate to get it around well.”

Asked if he’d like the course to be less firm and fast later in the week, Matsuyama said: “That’s a tough question. Please ask everybody else.”

That’s a smart, politically correct answer. Even former champions are reluctant to complain about conditions at Augusta. Best for Matsuyama to avoid that kind of attention. He’ll get plenty of the good kind if he can become the first Japanese player to win a major.

Matsuyama has the game to do it. He’s beaten the players in the world. Matsuyama’s five Tour victories include the Memorial and two World Golf Championship events. He also won Tiger Woods’ invitation-only Hero World Challenge in 2016.

Matsuyama can win under pressure. He’s 3-0 in tournament playoffs, with extra-hole victories against Kevin Na, Rickie Fowler and Webb Simpson. That nerve hasn’t yet translated to a victory at a major championship. Matsuyama’s best finish was a tie for second at the 2017 U.S. Open, and he needed a final-round 66 to get within four strokes of winner Brooks Koepka.

It’s absurd to portray Matsuyama’s career as a disappointment. It’s very hard to win any Tour event. It’s especially difficult to win prominent tournaments. Matsuyama first did at 22-years old, when he won the Memorial. Yet he hasn’t won since August 2017 despite posting good results.

Matsuyama is the golfer you pick for your fantasy team at majors because he’s a good bet to make the cut and finish respectably. He’s also the guy you don’t pick to win because he doesn’t close the deal. It usually takes more than steady and consistent golf to win majors. At some point, contenders must make a move to take the title.

Matsuyama is in position to do that on Friday. He was par or better in seven of his eight previous second rounds at Augusta. Matsuyama posted a 68 in the second round in November before shooting par in both weekend rounds and finishing tied for 13th. He’ll be among the golfers chasing Rose, who dusted the field on Thursday.

But the eventual Masters champion has had at least a share of the lead after the first round in just 11 tournaments. Only five golfers have won after leading outright after 18 holes. This is the 85th Masters. The eventual winner has been far more likely to come off the lead after the first day.

Rose is among 26 golfers who led the Masters after the first round and never won it. The list includes guys who shined at Augusta before fading into relative obscurity. But some golf legends also had at least a piece of the Masters lead after 18 holes and didn’t win the tournament that year or ever: Lee Trevino, Hubert Green, Lanny Wadkins (twice) and Greg Norman (twice).

Rose came from behind to best Phil Mickelson in the 2013 U.S. Open for his first and only victory in a major. He now holds the second-biggest lead at the Masters after round one. Matsuyama is good enough to take advantage if Rose falters. Winning the Masters before he’s 30-years old would change the perception of Matsuyama as an “old” young guy who’s very good but doesn’t win anymore.

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