If Hideki Matsuyama was feeling the weight of his country’s hopes, he didn’t show it. His little jogs to catch up with caddie Shota Hayafuji after tee shots reminded me of duffers hurrying to keep up with the pace of play. The leader in the final round of the Masters looked like a recreational golfer getting in a Sunday round with friends.

I figured Matsuyama was so relaxed because he was loose on the lead for much of Sunday. But his demeanor didn’t change when his four-shot lead was down to two with two holes to play. Xander Schauffele cracked. Matsuyama didn’t.

Once Schauffele posted a triple-bogey at No. 16, Matsuyama just had to avoid calamity over the final two holes. Three bogeys over the final four holes and a one-over par 73 were good enough because Matsuyama had been great until then. He finished the tournament 10-under, one stroke better than Masters rookie Will Zalatoris.

And it turns out that, despite appearances, Matsuyama was anxious the whole time.

“It was right from the start today and right to the very last putt,” he said via an interpreter.

Matsuyama performed under pressure and made his case as the greatest ever golfer from Japan. He’s the first Japanese man to win a major championship. Matsuyama has been of the best players on Tour since joining it in 2014. Winning the Masters is a first step toward greatness.

Last year's Masters champion Dustin Johnson (left) presents Hideki Matsuyama with his green jacket after winning the 85th Masters Tournament Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Last year's Masters champion Dustin Johnson (left) presents Hideki Matsuyama with his green jacket after winning the 85th 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

Majors have always meant more in golf. Then Tiger Woods came along and essentially said they were the only tournaments mattered to him. Matsuyama had been just a cut below the young golfers who started winning majors as Tiger faded. He’s closer to their level now.

Four winners of multiple majors are their prime years: Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson. Matsuyama, 29, bested all of them at this Masters. After four previous top-5 finishes at majors, Matsuyama broke through and won.

Zalatoris made the first bid to catch Matsuyama on Sunday. He birded No. 8 to get to 9-under just before Matsuyama tried a four-foot putt for birdie at No. 7. Matsuyama missed it and his lead was down to two strokes.

Matsuyama’s approach shot at No. 9 from 94 yards landed softly and came back to within three feet of the hole. He made the birdie putt for a five-stroke lead with nine to play. Matsuyama was still up five strokes with five holes left. The lead was four after Schauffele birdied No. 13 and Matsuyama saved par from a bunker.

“Hideki was robot-like for 13 holes,” Schauffele said. “Didn’t make a mistake.”

Schauffele made the last run at Matsuyama. His birdie at No. 13 was the second of four in a row. Matsuyama’s advantage was two strokes as the players headed to the 16th hole, where the wind and the water have ruined so many championship dreams.

Schauffele’s first tee shot was short of the green and rolled into the water. His second attempt went over the green.

“I hit a good shot, he said. “I committed to it. It turned out bad.”

Xander Schauffele reacts after hitting his ball in the water on the 16th tee during the final round of the Masters Tournament Sunday, April 11, 2021, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Xander Schauffele reacts after hitting his ball in the water on the 16th tee 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

Matsuyama went on to take his place among his country’s greatest golfers. There are four Japanese players in World Golf Hall of Fame.

Hisako “Chako” Higuchi, winner of the 1977 LPGA Championship, is recognized as a pioneer for women’s golf. Isao Aoki had five top-10 finishes at majors from 1978-88 (he was runner-up to Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 U.S. Open). Ayako Okamoto won 17 times on the LPGA Tour. Masashi “Jumbo” Ozaki won a record 94 titles on the Japan Golf Tour and had three top-10s in the majors, with his best Masters finish a tie for eighth in 1973.

At the time of his Hall of Fame induction, Ozaki said his only regret was not playing more tournaments outside of Japan. Matsuyama joined the Tour at his first opportunity. His top-10 finish at the 2013 U.S. Open vaulted him to No. 49 in the World Golf Rankings and he was 23rd to end the year. Matsuyama qualified for the 2014 Tour, won the Memorial that June and has been a top player since.

Matsuyama peaked at No. 2 in the rankings in 2017, when he won four tournaments and tied for second at the U.S. Open. Matsuyama won five Tour events from 2014-17. Two of them were World Golf Championship events. He was 3-0 in playoffs.

Winning the Masters eclipses all those accomplishments. Matsuyama did so while feeling the weight of representing his country, even if he didn’t show it.

“Hopefully I will be a pioneer in this and many other Japanese will follow,” Matsuyama said. “I am glad to be able to open the floodgates, hopefully.”

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