Column: Matsuyama goes from inspiration to Masters champion

Sports

Hideki Matsuyama, of Japan, celebrates while wearing the champion’s green jacket as Dustin Johnson looks on after winning the Masters golf tournament on Sunday, April 11, 2021, in Augusta, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The idea was to create golfing heroes, not necessarily a Masters champion.

Hideki Matsuyama is now both.

“I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the members of Augusta National,” Matsuyama said on the night before he became Japan’s first Masters champion. “Because I wouldn’t be here today without them.”

The seed was planted in February 2009, when Tiger Woods was a major champion for the fourth straight year and players from all but one continent where golf is played were represented among the top 15 in the world ranking. The exception was Asia.

Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National at the time, flew to Hong Kong with then-R&A chief Peter Dawson to announce a new tournament — the Asia-Pacific Amateur — for amateurs across a region they felt was teeming with potential.

They wanted to use the powerful brand of the Masters and the deep heritage of the British Open to make golf more appealing to the next generation.

“It became obvious fairly quickly that the place we could impact the most would be throughout Asia,” Payne said that day. “We thought if we could identify good golfers and create heroes who would be emulated by other kids, in the process they would be attracted to the game.”

Matsuyama played the second edition of the Asia-Pacific Amateur in 2010 at Kasumigaseki Country Club about an hour outside Tokyo, the host course of the Olympics this year. He won by five shots.

Also in the field that year was Satoshi Kodaira, who won the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head seven years later. Three other players that week eventually earned PGA Tour cards — Meen-whee Kim and K.H. Lee of South Korea and Xinjun Zhang of China.

Another player in the 2010 Asia-Pacific Amateur was 14-year-old Jazz Janewattananond of Thailand, who played in the penultimate group in the 2019 PGA Championship and was No. 38 in the world last year before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down golf.

Matsuyama first appeared in Butler Cabin as low amateur in his Masters debut 10 years ago. Then, he won the Asia-Pacific again by one shot — Cameron Smith of Australia, a Masters runner-up last year, tied for fourth.

“When I played in my first Masters Tournament as an amateur and made the cut, I felt for the first time that I could compete on the world stage,” Matsuyama said in a 2015 email interview. “I decided right there at Augusta National that golf would be my life long career.”

That was the starting point for Matsuyama becoming an inspiration, if not a golfing hero, for Japan and perhaps other Asian countries. And now he’s a Masters champion.

“Hopefully, I’ll be a pioneer in this and many other Japanese will follow,” Matsuyama said during his second Sunday visit to Butler Cabin, this time as the Masters champion. “I’m glad to be able to open the floodgates hopefully, and many more will follow me.”

The inspiration began before he slipped his arms into a green jacket.

Following him is Takumi Kanaya, who lists his favorite players as Woods and Matsuyama. He already has cut a path similar to Matsuyama. Both went to Tohoku Fukushi University. Both won on the Japan Golf Tour as an amateur. And both won the Asia-Pacific Amateur.

Matsuyama was among the first to call after Kanaya won the Asia-Pacific by going 64-65 on the weekend at Sentosa Golf Club in Singapore. He has been a mentor. Kanaya said after winning the Taiheiyo Masters in 2019, “Hideki told me to win at professional tournaments. I am so glad that I could report him great news.”

Long before the Asia-Pacific Amateur was launched, Augusta National had shown ample interest in Asia, some of that to appeal to the Asian television audience.

The Masters occasionally offers a special invitation to international players who don’t have as equal chances to qualify as PGA Tour members. Those have been used 12 of the last 20 years, all to players from Asia (Japan, China, Thailand and India), except for Greg Norman of Australia in 2002.

“Those professionals have to a large degree been heroes,” Payne said in the 2009 interview. “We want to establish a more grassroots program so that kids could be excited by seeing one of their own.”

Since then, Augusta National has joined with the R&A and USGA to create the Latin American Amateur — keep your eyes on one past champion, Joaquin Niemann.

And the club launched the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, already among the elite event for women on the amateur landscape. This year’s winner was Tsubasa Kajitani, a 17-year-old from Japan.

Matsuyama already was a proven commodity.

He won the Japan Golf Tour money title as a rookie. He came straight over to the PGA Tour and won for the first time at the Memorial, prompting tournament host Jack Nicklaus to say, “I just think you’ve just seen the start of what’s going to be truly one of your world’s great players over the next 10 to 15 years.”

One tradition for the Masters champion in the hours after his victory is to meet with the Augusta National members and share a toast. According to those in the room Sunday night as Matsuyama greeted them in his green jacket, Payne was close to tears.

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