Hideki Matsuyama has recorded one of Japan’s greatest international sporting successes after winning the US Masters golf , months before Tokyo is scheduled to host the summer Olympics.
His compatriots were preparing for work, perhaps pausing to catch glimpses of the last few holes on TV, when the 29-year-old secured a one-shot victory over the American Will Zalatoris at Augusta National in Georgia.
With his final putt, Matsuyama became the first Asian-born player to don the green jacket, and the only Japanese man to win a major title. Two women from Japan have won majors: Hisako Higuchi at the 1977 LPGA Championship and Hinako Shibuno at the 2019 Women’s British Open.
A shellshocked Matsuyama, who has never been entirely comfortable with the huge media attention he receives in Japan, recognised that his victory could boost golf in a country that has struggled to match its love of the sport with major winners.
Matsuyama received the green jacket from last year’s winner, Dustin Johnson, a decade after making his Masters debut as an amateur just weeks after his university city, Sendai, was struck by a deadly tsunami.
“I’m really happy. My nerves didn’t start on the second nine, it was right from the start and right to the very last putt,” Matsuyama said through an interpreter.
“I was thinking about my family all the way round today and I’m really happy that I played well for them. Hopefully I’ll be a pioneer in this, and many other Japanese will follow. I’m glad to be able to open the floodgates hopefully and many more will follow me.”
With the presentations and interviews done, Matsuyama finally relaxed in the warm afternoon light, raised his arms in triumph and broke into a broad smile.
A TV interviewer in Tokyo thanked Matsuyama “on behalf of all Japan”, while the prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, offered his congratulations.
“It was really wonderful,” said Suga, whose government is struggling to contain a rise in Covid-19 cases. “As the coronavirus drags on, his achievement moved our hearts and gave us courage.”
Tomohiro Fukaya, a national team track cyclist, said he had arrived early for morning training and watched the last few holes in his car. “The TV commentators were so overcome they could hardly speak,” he tweeted. “I was on the verge of tears too.”
The veteran Japanese golfer Isao Aoki, who finished runner-up to Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 US Open, also offered his congratulations. “Your victory at the Masters – a first for Japan and Asia – is being celebrated not just by me, but by every golf fan in Japan,” he said in comments carried online in Japanese in Golf Digest.
The US embassy in Japan congratulated Matsuyama on becoming “the first Japanese golfer to win the Masters”.
Matsuyama’s victory was a much-needed feelgood story as Tokyo prepares to host an Olympics dogged by scandal and concerns about safety amid the coronavirus pandemic. It also completed a successful fortnight for Japanese golfers at Augusta, after compatriot Tsubasa Kajitani won the Women’s Amateur Championship there on 3 April.
Dozens of fans in his home town – also called Matsuyama – gathered at a driving range run by his father to cheer him on.
“I think he’ll win many more Masters,” said Hiroshige Kato, who was wearing a hat autographed by the golfer. He told the Kyodo news agency: “I want him to be ranked No 1 in the world.”
Matsuyama, who four years ago accompanied Donald Trump and the then Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, on a round of golf at Kasumigaseki country club – the sport’s venue at Tokyo 2020 – conceded he had only been certain of victory when he hit the fairway on the final hole.
“I think I shredded everyone’s nerves, so I’ll try to win more emphatically next time,” he told Japanese TV.