TOKYO: Japan sucked in its breath as Hideki Matsuyama almost blew his chance to win the Masters but the golfer’s one-shot victory at Augusta National sparked a joyous reaction back home as the country celebrated another sporting triumph in testing times.
Matsuyama, 29, became the first man from Japan to win one of golf’s major titles, a feat that drew praise from government and Olympics officials with the Tokyo Games just three months away.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called Matsuyama’s historic win “wonderful” and a source of pride and courage for the Japanese people during the difficulties posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Matsuyama, who started the day with a four-shot lead over a quartet that included playing competitor Xander Schauffele and Masters debutant Zalatoris, carded a one-over-par 73 that left him at 10 under on the week at the year’s first major.
“Hopefully I’ll be a pioneer and many other Japanese will follow,” Matsuyama said through an interpreter inside Butler Cabin where he was presented with the champion’s famous Green Jacket.
“I am glad to open the floodgates hopefully and many more will follow me.”
The 29-year-old was seemingly in control until a bogey at the par-five 15th, where his approach shot went in the water behind the green, compounded with a birdie from Schauffele turned his four-stroke cushion into a two-shot lead.
But world number six Schauffele put his tee shot at the par-three 16th into the water and made triple-bogey to fall out of contention. He finished three shots back of Matsuyama and in a two-way share of third with former champion Jordan Spieth (70).
“I was coming in hot, I was feeling good,” said Schauffele, who made four consecutive birdies starting at the par-three 12th. “Hideki surprisingly went for the green on 15 so I felt like he gave me a little bit of hope there and maybe (I was) a little hyper-aggressive there on 16.”
Matsuyama bogeyed the 16th which left him with a two-shot lead over Zalatoris (70), who was already in the clubhouse at nine under on the week, and went on to close the deal with a par-bogey finish.
“Making Japan proud Hideki,” five-times Masters champion Tiger Woods, who is home recovering from serious leg injuries suffered in a February car crash, wrote on Twitter.
“Congratulations on such a huge accomplishment for you and your country. This historical @TheMasters win will impact the entire golf world.”
The victory by Matsuyama came in his 33rd major championship appearance and ended Zalatoris’s impressive bid to become the first Masters debutant to win a Green Jacket since Fuzzy Zoeller accomplished the feat in 1979.