AUGUSTA, Ga. — Sixteen years ago almost to the day, a 13-year-old Japanese boy woke up early one Monday morning to watch the Masters. He loved Tiger Woods — the very first time he’d watched the Masters, Tiger had won — and on this morning, Woods and Chris DiMarco walked to the 16th tee separated by a single stroke.
It was about 7:30 in the morning, but the boy watched, amazed, as Woods rolled in one of the great shots of all time, a curling chip that hung on the edge of the cup before dropping in to ground-shaking applause. The boy watched, and cheered, and dreamed of one day playing in the Masters himself.
Six years later, his dream came true. And 10 years after that, the boy — now grown up and leading the Masters — stood at the 16th himself. The tournament of his dreams was in his hands, but his lead had suddenly become fragile, his dreams in danger of vaporizing.
When Hideki Matsuyama walked off the 11th green Sunday, he led the Masters by five shots, and he led Xander Schauffele by seven shots. When Matsuyama walked off the 15th green a short time later, his lead over Schauffele had dwindled to just two strokes. What once seemed like a coronation was about to turn into a rock fight.
Schauffele had played out of his mind, yes, firing four straight birdies from the 12th to the 15th holes. But Matsuyama, so steady on Saturday, was rattled and rattling, getting sloppy and making poor choices all around Rae’s Creek. He buried the ball in the far bunker on 12, leading to a bogey. He parked the ball in the rough high around the green on 13, and a sure birdie hole became a par. Then, the worst mistake of all: he fired at the green on 15, going big instead of laying up, and his overcooked approach skittered past the green and into the water beyond. Just like that, a lead Matsuyama had held for more than 20 holes was one more bad shot away from evaporating.
It’s a short walk from the 15th green to the 16th tee. Hardly enough time to write your score, much less get your head straight after taking body blows like that. The sun comes shining in at an angle, beyond the pines and the sixth green and the enormous scoreboard that shows your successes and your failures all in a row. The tee at 16 is tucked into a small corner, ringed by azaleas and overhanging trees. It’s not a place to go to hide. It’s a place where you’re exposed.
Matsuyama is one of the world’s most famous golfers, in large part because he’s Japan’s most famous golfer. In pre-COVID days, dozens of Japanese media members would travel to every tournament Matsuyama played, watching him, photographing him, interviewing him, and asking every player they could find to comment on him.
It’s been a harrowing, claustrophobic, suffocating existence in the spotlight for Matsuyama, so much so that he hid the existence of a wife and child from the world for several months in 2017.
But now, in this moment, there was absolutely nowhere to hide. He had to face his fears, live up to his dreams. He had to take the most important swing of his life.
Schauffele had the honors, though, and the opportunity to put even more pressure on Matsuyama. A shot to the center of the green, even with the tucked Sunday pin placement — in the same spot where Tiger had rolled in that shot so many years ago — and Matsuyama’s collar would grow even tighter.
But Schauffele misjudged the wind, and his 8-iron ended up rolling softly into the water beside the green.
“Hit a really good shot on 16,” he said afterward. “I committed to it. I hit a perfect shot. We thought it was down left to right. It was not down left to right, and the rest is history.”
That left Matsuyama on the tee with an unexpected shot at salvation. Everything in his life, all his work, from the time he was a four-year-old golf prodigy to the barnstorming second nine on Saturday at Augusta — all of it had led up to this moment for Matsuyama. All he needed to do was hit it pure.
The ball took flight. The patrons murmured. It wasn’t on target, exactly, but how far off was it?
Not much, as it turned out. Matsuyama’s tee shot thumped right onto the green, 41 feet from the pin. Safe. Smart. Tournament-winning.
“Unfortunately for Xander, he found the water with his tee shot,” Matsuyama said through a translator. “I played safe to the right of the green at 16.”
Matsuyama would make it a little interesting in those final holes. He bogeyed both 16 and 18, his balky putter returning to the mean after two days of unexpectedly astronomical performance. But he held off Schauffele’s challenge in that moment, and that was enough to give him a final push for the green jacket.
“I knew he was going to be a worldbeater, and he was,” said Kevin Na shortly after the tournament ended. “This is going to mean a lot to golf in Asia.”
Every Masters win changes the life of the winner. This one could change the life of thousands. Matsuyama’s phenomenal popularity in Japan means that kids there have a hero to emulate, the first Japanese winner of the Masters, the first male Japanese major winner. Matsuyama looked up mostly to baseball players — Yu Darvish, Shohei Otani, Kenta Maeda. But now, he’s the one on the pedestal.
“Up until now, we haven’t had a major champion in Japan, and maybe a lot of golfers or younger golfers, too, thought, well, maybe that’s an impossibility,” Matsuyama said. “But with me doing it, hopefully that will set an example for them that it is possible and that, if they set their mind to it, they can do it, too.”
Somewhere in Japan, there’s a kid — maybe a whole lot of kids — who got up early to watch Matsuyama, the way Matsuyama watched Woods. And maybe, 15 or 20 years from now, that kid will be playing in majors, and they’ll look back to this moment as the one that lit the fire underneath them.
“It’s thrilling to think that there are a lot of youngsters in Japan watching today. Hopefully in five, ten years, when they get a little older, hopefully some of them will be competing on the world stage,” Matsuyama said.
Then, a warning delivered with a smile: “But I still have a lot of years left, so they are going to have to compete against me still.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected]
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