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OPINION | WALLY HALL: Matsuyama shoulders weight of a country

by Wally Hall | April 13, 2021 at 2:15 a.m.

No doubt most of Japan cheered when it found out Hideki Matsuyama had become the first native son to win the Masters.

In fact, he's the first Japanese man to win a major.

The victory won't make golf more popular in Japan. It couldn't.

The country is crazy about the game already.

In 1985, the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team played a tournament in Japan while traveling to six major cities. From the bus to the bullet train to just walking around, you couldn't help but see these huge cages everywhere.

It was not unusual to see five or six a day.

They were driving ranges, and they were always full.

One of our tour guides said his father -- who owned one of the largest advertising companies in Japan -- played golf occasionally, but he usually had to wait two weeks to get on a course.

There are many more courses now than there were 35 years ago.

The country has beautiful golf courses. Most are private, and there are long waits for the public courses and about a $100 fee per person. They rarely accept just one golfer, and when there is more than one there is also a duty tax.

Golf is probably more popular in America with thousands of public and private courses, but lots of Americans win majors in golf.

This one was special.

Watching all day Sunday, it soon became obvious Matsuyama was feeling the pressure.

He started the final round with a four-stroke lead after shooting 69, 71 and 65 in the first three rounds.

He led by as many as six strokes Sunday, but rookie Will Zalatoris was breathing down his neck all afternoon. His final-round 70 left him one stroke short, 279-278, as Matsuyama shot 73, which was just enough.

Matsuyama, 29, had his first full season on the PGA Tour in 2014. He made the cut 20 of 24 times, which served noticed he was for real.

In 2015, he had nine top-10 finishes and was ranked 16th.

He has qualified for the PGA Tour FedEx Cup final event every year he's been on the tour, and according to ESPN he ranks 37th among all golfers in career earnings with $31,220,951.

He now has won six PGA events and eight international tournaments.

It wouldn't have been surprising if he was soaked in sweat after finishing Sunday because he was playing for a country he loves.

Instead, he was rather stoic. But the relief was obvious.

He earned it by being good to great the first three days and steady enough on the last one.

Couldn't help but think about Rory McIlroy's Masters in 2011 when he came into the final day with a four-stroke lead that was reduced to one by the turn.

On the 10th hole, he made a triple bogey and a double bogey on the 11th. He went on to shoot an 80 and finish outside the top 10.

Matsuyama never was that uptight.

He obviously was nervous, but he kept his nerves under control as much as anyone could in a similar situation.

Understand that he has his own private media mob, and not one he necessarily wants. It brings his every move home to Japan, and they follow him like he's got the recipe for Coke.

Plus, there are millions watching from all over the world and the best golfers are studying him intently, especially those in the chase.

He's seen and felt it for seven years. After his first PGA win at the 2014 Memorial Tournament, host Jack Nicklaus said everyone had just seen someone who could become a truly great golfer.

High praise from The Bear, but Matsuyama backed it up with strong finishes in almost every tournament he played.

Then on Sunday, with an entire country pulling for him, he delivered his signature victory.


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