A teenage dream has become a reality as Hideki Matsuyama's historic victory in the 2021 U.S. Masters is destined to ignite new dreams among Asian children and will likely spark a new golf craze in Japan and possibly throughout the region.
Like many others, 29-year-old Matsuyama grew up watching his idol Tiger Woods dominate the U.S. Masters. He often wondered if he would one day compete in the esteemed golf tournament like Tiger, with all its signature championship perks - a green jacket, lifetime entry rights, and the opportunity to share exclusive dinners with other Masters champions on Tuesdays during tournament week.
"I used to watch the U.S. Masters as a kid, and it brought back a lot of great memories, and I always fantasized that one day I'd get to play here, too." He recalled.
Carrying the high hopes of a golf-crazed nation, Matsuyama had no time to become Japan's first male major winner. He was blessed by fate, taking a deserved one-stroke lead in the thrilling final round of the U.S. Masters on a hallowed, sunny Sunday afternoon in April. The moment was so significant that the Japanese government sent congratulations to Matsuyama across the country after his championship putt through its national alert system, which is activated only in the event of natural disasters and emergencies.
He also received recognition from Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who said." This year marks the 10th anniversary (of the Great East Japan Earthquake), and your tremendous achievement in winning the U.S. Masters gives great hope and courage to not only those directly affected by the earthquake but also to the rest of your fellow countrymen."
By winning the U.S. Masters, Matsuyama boosted the morale of the Japanese people fighting their fate, who are battling a new form of coronavirus pneumonia and deeply mourning a natural disaster that killed nearly 20,000 people ten years ago. Becoming the first Japanese golfer to wear a green jacket and the second Asian male to win a major, he also evoked hopes of a bumper crop as Tokyo hosts the rescheduled Olympics this July - in the very place where he first announced his triumphant return.
The growth of golf is most dependent on timing. Matsuyama's victory was just the right opportunity for the sport's next leap forward, much like Korean golf in the 2000s, which exploded under the influence of Ryang Yong-in, who won Asia's first men's major, and Park Se Ri, who excelled on the LPGA Tour. The importance of this victory goes without saying according to Jay Monaghan, president of the US Tour." His historic victory will inspire many in his home country and around the world, and fitting perfectly with this summer's Olympics in Tokyo, where he will without a doubt be a focal point.
Over the past 20 years, golf consumption in Japan has seen a downward trend for various reasons, including an economic recession, an aging golf population, and the high cost of participation, with the total number of golfers plummeting from 12 million to 6.5 million. Following Matsuyama's breakthrough victory, golf pro store sales are booming, and a steady stream of people, including children, are flocking to Tokyo's driving ranges to renew their interest. In Japan, the sport was previously known as an "old people's sport," and golf industry operators have recently worked to make it more inclusive and accessible to all.
Australian Adam Scott, a former winner of the U.S. Masters, also believes that with Matsuyama's breakthrough, golf can prosper further in Asia. Scott, who has participated in four Presidents Cups with Matsuyama, said, "For the rest of the world, the image he has set is simply the Japanese version of Tiger Woods."
"Before, we could only fantasize about such a myth. Honestly, who could have imagined it? It's not just a dream; I can't find the words to describe it. Maybe this victory can bring golf's second glory, like our golf's first boom in 1957 (when Japan won the Canada Cup on home soil, a tournament that was the precursor to the World Cup of Golf)." In an interview with Golf Digest, Andy Yamanaka, secretary-general of the Japan Golf Association.
Matsuyama's rise to prominence over the past decade has undoubtedly been one of the region's delightful stories of beauty. He seemed destined to become a significant winner when his father first handed him the clubs. Before the 2010 Asia Pacific Amateur Championship (AAC), Matsuyama would not have qualified for the event. Still, as the host country, Japan was able to add four spots to the original six. Although Matsuyama did not finish in the top six at the time, he seized the opportunity of this increased number of spots. He scored his first significant victory, earning him a valuable ticket to the 2011 U.S. Masters.
Just as he was preparing for the 2011 U.S. Masters, a magnitude nine earthquake and ensuing tsunami struck Sendai, causing many casualties. After the disaster, he considered withdrawing from the U.S. Masters. Returning from a training session in Australia, he found that the area around his school was destroyed." He seriously considered it. He planned to quit. Still, everyone encouraged him to play for Japan," said his longtime agent, translator, and friend Bob Turner during the 2021 U.S. Masters." Here we are today, living up to the hype."
Matsuyama ultimately still chose to go on as far as Augusta National to make good on his early promise to make his U.S. Masters debut. He lived up to the hype and tied for 27th place as the best amateur golfer. The reward was being invited into the Butler Lodge to witness Phil Mickelson don the green jacket for champion Charl Schwartzel, which fueled his motivation even more.
Matsuyama admits to being blessed by Lady Luck when he got his first big break." I was very fortunate to receive one of those entries, and winning the 2010 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship changed the trajectory of my life. Playing in the Masters made me want to come back to Augusta every year, and to do that, I had to practice hard, and all the hard work I put in was towards that goal," he said.
As early as four, Hideki Matsuyama's father took him to the local driving range to practice. From the time he was influenced by his father and began his golf journey to the time he now proudly wears the green jacket, Matsuyama hopes that kids across Japan will follow his lead.
"Hopefully, I am a pioneer, and many Japanese will follow me. I am happy to open the floodgates of victory, and I hope it will positively impact the development of golf in Japan. Not only golfers, but young people who are playing golf or thinking about playing golf, I hope they see this win, think it was worth it, and follow my lead. Before this, there was no major champion in Japan, and many golfers thought that achieving a major was impossible. But I did it, and hopefully, I can be an example to show them that it is possible, and with determination, they can do it too."