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JUSTICE IN GEORGIA: AN ASIAN PLAYER WINS THE MASTERS
Hideki Matsuyama is just another guy who likes playing with his cellphone, but as the first Japanese-born male to win a golf major, he represents much more after anti-Asian hate killings in Atlanta.
If we must have Georgia on our minds, amid a torrent of anti-Asian hate in that state and across America, is it not poetic that Hideki Matsuyama became the first Asian-born man to win the Masters? A week after Tsubasa Kajitani, a 17-year-old from Japan, won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur? Last month, six women of Asian descent were murdered in a shooting rampage at Atlanta-area spas.
The hallowed club in the hills of east Georgia remained open for its sacred tournament. Even as Major League Baseball played a contrived public-relations card, protesting the state’s new voting laws by moving its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver, the lords in their green jackets never considered pausing to let the state breathe. There were TV fortunes to make, azaleas to show off and golf memories to create — hopefully by an American, they quietly harbored, to quell the unspoken dread that Tiger Woods may have been impaired (again) in a February SUV crash he doesn’t remember. Maybe Dustin Johnson would be the first back-to-back winner since Woods. Maybe Jordan Spieth finally would stop talking to himself and his caddie and figure out his troubles. Hell, let Bryson DeChambeau obliterate Amen Corner.
Just make sure the winner was American, y’all, if you know what they mean down there on Waffle House Highway.
Instead, the champion was Matsuyama, who instantly became likable when he revealed how he spent Saturday’s rain delay. He walked out to his car — imagine, a Masters contender walking through a storm to the parking lot — and decided he needed a diversion from the awful tee shot he’d just sent into the trees before play was suspended.
‘‘``Played a lot of games on the cellphone,’’ he said. ‘‘Maybe it relieved some pressure. I just figured, I can’t hit it anything worse than that.’’
When he returned and played the final eight holes in 6-under par, for a memorable 65, they might as well have pointed him straight to Butler Cabin. The green jacket was his, the first major golf championship won by a Japanese-born male.
‘‘`Hopefully, I’ll be a pioneer and there will be many young Japanese to follow,’’ he said through an interpreter. ‘‘``I’m happy to open up the floodgates and hope many more will follow me. … 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. Until now, we haven't had a major champion in Japan, and maybe a lot of golfers or younger golfers thought, well, maybe that's an impossibility. But with me doing it, hopefully that will set an example that it is possible and that, if they set their mind to it, they can do it, too.’’
He was asked which Japanese athletes inspired him. He mentioned no golfers or sumo wrestlers, just baseball players we know in the U.S. ‘‘Darvish, Ohtani, Maeda,’’ he said. All are in his Matsuyama’s shadows today.
A tweet from Jupiter, Fla., soon followed. ‘‘Making Japan proud Hideki,’’ wrote Woods. ‘‘Congratulations on such a huge accomplishment for you and your country. This historical @TheMasters win will impact the entire golf world.’’ Not that it will take our minds off Woods and whether he continues to have opioid issues after another round of surgeries, his most intense yet.
This is not what the haters wanted. But it’s what they deserved, a winner who didn’t look like them but outlasted all the popular and marquee names by finishing 10 under par. This was no fluke — Matsuyama, 29, has been ranked as high as No. 2 with eight top-10s in majors and 14 victories worldwide. Blessed by Jack Nicklaus as a global star in the making and once the low amateur at Augusta, he only had to learn to control his putter through recent travails. The sum of his talents finally converged in the perfect setting.
Set aside America, where Asians have been killed, harassed, threatened and spat at by those who want blood and blame China for the coronavirus. He had enough of a burden in his native land, where the pressure to make history was unbearable. ‘‘He’s a bit like a Tiger Woods (is) to the rest of the world, Hideki in Japan,’’ former Masters champ Adam Scott said. When Matsuyama had his one uncomfortable moment Sunday, finding the water on No. 15 and letting a four-stroke lead shrivel to two, CBS aired the reaction of broadcasters on the Japanese feed — frantically raised voices and sighs. Was he blowing it again, as he did in 2017 at the PGA Championship, when he missed a late par putt and left Quail Hollow in tears?
‘‘`My nerves didn’t start on the second nine. It was right from the start, right to the last putt,’’ he admitted.
He was helped, indirectly, by the pandemic. COVID-19 kept the usual mob of Japanese media members to a minimum at Augusta. ‘‘I’m not sure how to answer this in a good way. Being in front of the media is still difficult for me,’’ Matsuyama said. ‘‘It’s not my favorite thing to stand and answer questions, so with fewer media it’s been a lot less stressful. I’ve enjoyed this week.” He guards his privacy, to the point his December 2016 marriage wasn’t disclosed by his management company until after his wife, Mei, gave birth to their first child that July.
‘‘As far as the family and privacy, no one really asked me if I was married, so I didn't have to answer that question," Matsuyama said.
Actually, it was an American, Xander Schauffele, who cracked Sunday. On the heels of the leader, he found the water on No. 16, then hit into the gallery behind the hole. His triple-bogey removed all but one golfer — the American Will Zalatoris, whose poise belied his Owen Wilson looks, rail-thin frame and 24 years — from the finish line. Matsuyama survived a final challenge, hitting an approach shot into the greenside bunker, before completing the journey to warm, respectful but hardly thundering applause.
‘‘I remember the feeling of a four-shot lead, and he's got Japan on his back and maybe Asia on his back,’’ Spieth said. ‘‘`I can't imagine kind of how that was trying to sleep on that, even with somebody who's had so much success. I think the way he's been able to withstand it, if he's able to finish this one off, I think it's really good for the game of golf globally. He's a great young player who inevitably was going to win major championships.’’
We’ve waited forever for someone to assume dominance in this sport and move a needle. Now that Woods is finished with regular competitive golf, we’re still asking the questions: Who? And when, if ever? Johnson follows up glory with clunkers. Spieth is as infuriating as he is charismatic. Rory McIlroy isn’t that man. Brooks Koepka is dealing with knee issues. Justin Thomas crashed in the third round and isn’t all that. DeChambeau? All the eating binges and caloric intake can’t help if Augusta is encamped in his head. We knew there wouldn’t be another Tiger Woods. At this point, we’re just looking for someone to be interesting. Is it you, Will Zalatoris?
‘‘``I know I can play with the best players in the world,’’ he said after a stunning second-place finish. ‘‘``I felt I played well, but I left a lot of shots out there. The first one’s coming. I’ve just got to keep working.’’
Who, by the way, forecasted his emergence? None other than Tony Romo, whose football seer ability works on golf courses, too. When Zalatoris, a star at Wake Forest, moved to the Dallas area and started playing at Romo’s club, it was clear a player who ranked 483rd last April — and 2,006th at the start of 2019 — was bound for impact. Who knew it would happen so soon?
But this day at Augusta belonged to a man from the other side of the world, a nation that insists it will host the Summer Olympics as COVID continues to rage. Matsuyama will be front and center on in the festivities and a favorite in the golf competition. Perhaps, as Nick Faldo mentioned on the CBS broadcast, he might be chosen to light the cauldron at opening ceremonies. ‘‘I’m really looking forward to the Olympic Games in Tokyo,’’ he said. ‘‘If I am on the team, and maybe it looks like I will be, I’ll do my best to represent my country.’’
Yeah, I think he made the team.
His victory is a salvation for a country bracing for the months ahead. Ten years after an earthquake and tsunami killed more than 15,000 in Japan, is another catastrophe coming to the Games? A more contagious variant is spreading there, as only one percent of the population has received the first of two vaccine doses. That will lead to more propaganda among anti-Asian factions in the U.S., claiming are athletes are on death watches if they compete starting in late July.
Let them seethe. On a warm and sunny Sunday at Augusta, an American portrait like no other, Hideki Matsuyama reminded us that the world is filled with people. Asians and Americans, Blacks and Whites — we’re all just people.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of ``Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Spotify, etc.). He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.