A decade after earning low amateur honors in his first Masters Tournament appearance, Hideki Matsuyama of Japan outlasted the competition to claim the green jacket in 2021.
Call it destiny. Call it 10 years in the making. Call it a banner week in golf for Japan.
And call Hideki Matsuyama the 2021 Masters Tournament champion.
Matsuyama got his first Masters hardware in his 2011 debut as the 2010 winner of the Asia – Pacific Amateur Championship, a tournament the Masters helped launch, by earning the low amateur sterling silver cup. Last year, however, he added a green jacket and a trophy to his Masters collection when he became the first male golfer from Japan to win a major.
“I hope it will affect golf in Japan in a good way,” he said. “Not only those who are golfers already, but hopefully the youngsters who are playing golf or thinking about playing golf. I hope they will see this victory and think it’s cool and try to follow in my footsteps.”
Only eight days earlier, his compatriot, 17-year-old Tsubasa Kajitani, had won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in a sudden death playoff.
“It was fantastic. I hope I can follow in her shoes, and again, make Japan proud,” he said on Saturday after posting 65 to pull away from the field with a four-shot lead going into the final round.
Shooting 73 on Sunday, he hung on to win the tournament by a stroke over Masters rookie Will Zalatoris, who was under par all four rounds.
“I thought I did a really good job this week of just enjoying the moment, but not letting it get to me. . .. to come up one short and be disappointed is motivating, but obviously very exciting,” the newcomer said.
Firm and Fast
Zalatoris was one of only six first-timers in the field of 88 players at the 85th Masters.
Held just five months after the previous Masters was postponed until November 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2021 tournament had a limited number of patrons in attendance as well.
However, the lucky patrons who scored practice round or tournament tickets practically had their own private – but properly masked and socially distanced, of course – viewing parties. That group included local healthcare workers who were provided with credentials to attend the tournament.
The weather for the practice rounds on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday was tailor-made for the Masters. Lows in the 50s; highs in the 80s. Nothing but blue skies and sunshine.
Although the Par 3 Contest was canceled for the second year in a row, two words that are associated with the golf course’s famous greens – firm and fast – were back.
The firm, fast greens stood in stark contrast to the soft course conditions of the 2020 Masters, and three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson welcomed their return.
“For the last decade, the greens here are in the top 25 percent of softest we play on Tour, and the golf course’s only defense is the greens, right? So when the greens are firm, the precision, the course management, the angles . . . become incredibly important in your ability to play this course effectively. When the greens are soft, it’s irrelevant because you can fly the ball over all the trouble. Angles don’t matter. . .. So if it’s firm, I think it’s going to be a real test,” he said in a Tuesday press conference.
“And major championships should challenge and test the best players. . .. I think with firm greens, this golf course needs to be respected. And I think it’s been a long time since it’s had to be respected.”
In his annual Wednesday press conference, Fred Ridley, Augusta National Golf Club and Masters Tournament chairman, spoke about the course conditions as well. He said the weather had been ideal leading up to the tournament and that the course hadn’t played this firm and fast since 2013.
“Our intention would be to maintain that throughout the week. In the past, we might have started out a little soft and then got firmer as the week went on and vice versa, and last year we were pretty soft all week,” said Ridley. “I think we have the golf course where we want it. It’s playing . . . firm and fast, and not only the greens but the fairways. The ball really is rolling.”
‘Like a New Course’
Steeped in history and tradition, Augusta National started the tournament by adding to its legacy with the honorary starters ceremony.
Lee Elder, who in 1975 became the first Black man to play in the Masters, joined Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, who have nine green jackets between them, on the first tee Thursday morning for their ceremonial shots.
In 2020 Augusta National announced that it would create the Lee Elder Scholarships and fund the launch of a women’s golf program at Paine College in Augusta, and representatives of the
Historically Black College and University watched the ceremony. Two scholarships – one each for a student-athlete on the men’s and women’s golf teams – will be awarded annually, and the teams are expected to start competing in the fall of 2022.
“I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in,” Elder, who died in November at age 87, said of serving as an honorary starter. “It is certainly something that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
The golf course also lived up to its promise when the tournament got underway. The wind picked up mid-morning, and only 12 players finished the day under par.
With a score of 65, Justin Rose of England held the first-round lead at 7-under. He had an eagle on No. 8 and birdies on Nos. 9, 10, 12, 13, 15, 16 and 17, shooting 9-under in a 10-hole stretch. The only blemishes on his card were bogeys on the first and seventh holes.
Matsuyama and Brian Harman shot 69, leaving them tied for second place and four shots behind at 3-under-par. Matsuyama eagled No. 8, birdied Nos. 2 and 13 and bogeyed No. 17.
“It’s my tenth year, but I’ve never seen the greens so firm and fast. So it was like a new course for me playing today, and I was fortunate to get it around well,” said Matsuyama.
Five players finished at 2-under-par, including Zalatoris. Squeaking into the field with a Top-50 world ranking the week before the tournament, he was trying to become the first newcomer to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
“If I’m stupid enough to think I can play here, then I’m stupid enough to think I can win it,” Zalatoris said.
Another Englishman also had a memorable afternoon. Tommy Fleetwood made a hole-in-one on the par 3 No. 16 with a 9-iron when his ball bounced a couple of times and rolled into the cup.
With that shot, he made his second ace in competitive rounds in two weeks. “It’s really nice to have one at the Masters. . .. It’s very special,” Fleetwood said.
Cloud cover, humidity and a lack of wind were factors on Friday, and 40 players shot scores under par.
After a roller-coaster round, Rose ended the day where he started – atop the leaderboard at 7-under. He went out in 39 on the front nine, birdieing the second hole but bogeying Nos. 1, 4, 6 and 7. However, with birdies on the 13th, 14th and 16th holes, he came home in 33 to shoot even par for the day. Rather than separating himself from the field, however, he found his lead trimmed from four shots to one.
Zalatoris birdied the last three holes and Harman, another late entry into the field by virtue of cracking the Top 50 the week prior to the Masters, birdied the last two holes to finish T2 at 6-under-par.
Shooting 71 in the second round, Matsuyama was one of six players tied for sixth place at 4-under-par. He birdied Nos. 9 and 15, and eagled No. 13. He had bogeys on the fifth, 10th and 16th holes.
“I like my position, but I’ve got to keep working. And hopefully tomorrow I’ll be in the same position or even better,” he said.
Jockeying for Position
For the weekend, 54 competitors made the cut, which included the top 50 players and ties, at 3-over-par. The wind, gusting up to 20 – 25 mph, picked up as the day wore on.
One of the highlights of the day was an ace on No. 6 with an 8-iron by Canadian Corey Conners, who finished the round in sixth place at 6-under.
“I was trying to fly it somewhere over the bunker and get it to go in, get it to go close to the hole. It was a little draw, turning at the pin,” he said. “I think I hit the pin with a little bit of steam, but it was right in the middle.”
A gentle rain came in the late afternoon, suspending the action for an hour and 15 minutes. When play resumed after the delay, golfers took advantage of more favorable scoring conditions and began to jockey for position on the leaderboard.
In a span of about 90 seconds, Zalatoris, paired with Rose in the final group of the day, birdied No. 10 to tie his playing partner for the lead at 7-under. With birdies on the 11th and 12th holes, Matsuyama was tied for the lead as well.
After birdieing No. 13, Schauffele, who was playing with Matsuyama, drained a 60-foot putt to eagle No. 15 and grab a share of the lead.
Rose then birdied No. 12 to retake the lead at 8-under, just before Matsuyama eagled the 15th hole to pull in front at 9-under. He called the 5-iron he hit into the par-5 hole his best shot all week by far. Following his eagle with birdies on Nos. 16 and 17, Matsuyama was 11-under.
On No. 18, Matsuyama saved par with a clutch shot from 25 yards behind the green to come home in 30 and shoot 65 for the first bogey-free round of the tournament. He played the final eight holes in 6-under after the rain delay to take a four-shot lead into Sunday over Rose, Zalatoris, Schauffele and Australian Marc Leishman.
“After the horn blew for the restart, I hit practically every shot exactly how I wanted to,” said Matsuyama, who spent the rain delay in his car playing games on his cell phone.
For the fourth round, Matsuyama and Schauffele were paired together for the second day in a row. On Sunday, though, they were in the final group.
Matsuyama got off to a shaky start on No. 1 when he hit a 3-wood off the tee into the trees on the right. He bogeyed the hole, dropping him to 10-under.
“I felt really good going to the first tee, until I stood on the first tee, and then it hit me that I’m in the last group of the Masters Tournament, and I’m the leader by four strokes,” he said after the round. “And then I was really nervous.”
Zalatoris birdied the first two holes to draw within one shot of Matsuyama at 9-under. However, Zalatoris bogeyed No. 3 and Matsuyama birdied the second hole to move back into a three-stroke lead over Zalatoris and Schauffele, who also birdied No. 2.
Adding birdies at Nos. 8 and 9, Matsuyama climbed to 13-under to build a five-shot cushion over Zalatoris after he bogeyed the 10th hole.
Jordan Spieth, the 2015 Masters champion who finished T3, had just birdied the 10th hole for the fourth day in a row, becoming the only player in tournament history to birdie the long, downhill par-4 in all four rounds.
Matsuyama bogeyed No. 12 to drop back to 12-under, but he still held a five-shot lead over Zalatoris; Schauffele, who birdied No. 12; and Spieth, who also birdied Nos. 13 and 14.
Matching birdies with his playing partner on No. 13, Matsuyama maintained a five-stroke advantage over Schauffele. That birdie also put him at 12-under for the week on the 15 par-5 holes he had played to that point.
The Masters was threatening to become a runaway until the final group arrived at No. 15 and Matsuyama’s stellar play on the par 5s came to a watery end. After his second shot flew over the green and rolled into the pond on No. 16, Matsuyama bogeyed the hole to fall to 12-under.
Meanwhile, Schauffele made his third and fourth birdies in a row on Nos. 14 and 15 to pull within two shots of Matsuyama.
Just as quickly as the outcome of the tournament appeared in doubt, however, the suspense evaporated when Schauffele’s tee shot on the 16th hole found the water. He made a triple bogey to fall back to 7-under.
Matsuyama bogeyed No. 16 as well, leaving him with a score of 11-under and a three-shot lead over Zalatoris. With a birdie on the 17th hole, Zalatoris cut the margin to two strokes.
After parring No. 17, Matsuyama stood on the 18th tee with a two-shot lead. He hit his second shot into a bunker and blasted out to within 5 feet of the cup. He two-putted for bogey to win the tournament by a stroke.
The new champion tipped his cap to the cheering gallery, and his caddie, Shota Hayafuji, acknowledged the moment as well. In a show of gratitude and respect, he removed his hat and bowed after returning the flagstick to the hole on the 18th green following Matsuyama’s victory.
The 29-year-old Matsuyama, the tournament’s seventh low amateur who later claimed the green jacket, said it was a thrill to be an inspiration to the young golfers in Japan who watched him win the Masters. However, he wasn’t ready to pass the baton to them just yet.
“Hopefully in five, ten years, when they get a little older, hopefully some of them will be competing on the world stage,” he said. “But I still have a lot of years left, so they are going to have to compete against me still.”
By Betsy Gilliland