Prepared or Not, Hideki Matsuyama Is Now a Nationwide Hero in Japan

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TOKYO — Hideki Matsuyama has by no means been a fan of the highlight. At the same time as he rose to change into Japan’s most profitable male golfer, he did his finest to keep away from the eye lavished on the each transfer of different Japanese athletes who’ve shined on the worldwide stage.

However together with his win on Sunday on the Masters in Augusta, Ga., the glare will now be inescapable. His victory, the primary by a Japanese man in certainly one of golf’s main championships, is the success of a long-held ambition for the nation, and it ensures that he shall be feted as a nationwide hero, with the adoration and scrutiny that follows.

Japan is a nation of avid golfers, and the sport’s standing as the game of alternative for the Western enterprise and political elite has given it a particular resonance. Success in sports activities has lengthy been a vital gauge of the nation’s world standing, with the US and Europe typically the usual by which Japan measures itself.

“We have now all the time dreamed of profitable the Masters,” stated Andy Yamanaka, secretary-general of the Japan Golf Affiliation. “It’s a really shifting second for all of us. I believe lots of people cried when he completed.”

These tears mirror, partially, an island nation that sees itself as smaller and fewer highly effective than different main nations, regardless that it’s the world’s third-largest financial system. Which means athletes who signify it globally are sometimes burdened with expectations and pressures that transcend the sphere of play.

The nation’s information media has adopted the exploits of its athletes overseas with an depth that some have discovered unnerving. When the baseball star Ichiro Suzuki joined the Seattle Mariners, Japanese information organizations arrange bureaus within the metropolis devoted completely to masking him. Tv stations right here broadcast seemingly obscure main league video games simply in case a Japanese participant seems. Even modest scoring performances by a Japanese N.B.A. participant can set off headlines.

Golf isn’t any exception. Even throughout low-stakes tournaments, a gaggle of Japanese reporters typically path Matsuyama, 29, a level of consideration that the media-shy golfer appears to have discovered overwhelming.

At Augusta, the strain — not less than from the information media — was blessedly low. Covid-19 restrictions had stored attendance by journalists to a minimal, and Japan’s press turned out in small numbers. After ending Saturday’s third spherical with a four-stroke lead, Matsuyama admitted to reporters that “with fewer media, it’s been lots much less worrying for me.”

His victory was a significant breakthrough for a rustic that has the world’s second-largest variety of golf gamers and programs. The sport is a ubiquitous presence all through the nation, with the tall inexperienced nets of driving ranges marking the skyline of just about each suburb. In 2019, the P.G.A. added its first official match in Japan.

Within the century because the sport was launched to Japan by international retailers, the nation has produced a variety of top-flight gamers, like Masashi Ozaki and Isao Aoki. However till now, solely two had gained main tournaments, each ladies: Hisako Higuchi on the 1977 L.P.G.A. Championship and Hinako Shibuno on the 2019 Ladies’s British Open.

Earlier this month, one other Japanese lady, Tsubasa Kajitani, gained the second ever beginner ladies’s competitors at Augusta Nationwide.

Matsuyama’s Masters victory was the crowning achievement of a journey that started on the age of 4 in his hometown, Matsuyama — no relation — on Japan’s southern island of Shikoku. His father, an beginner golfer who now runs a apply vary, launched him to the sport.

He excelled on the sport as a teen, and by 2011, he was the highest-placed beginner on the Masters. By 2017, he had gained six PGA occasions and was ranked No. 2 on the planet, the very best ever for a Japanese male golfer.

In recent times, nonetheless, he appeared to have hit a stoop, haunted by an uneven quick sport and a bent to buckle beneath strain, squandering commanding leads on the again 9’s placing greens.

By means of all of it, Matsuyama has led a personal existence centered on golf, whereas different athletes have racked up media appearances and company endorsements. He has earned reward for a piece ethic that has typically led him to cap off a significant match look with hours of labor on his swing.

He appears to don’t have any hobbies or any curiosity in buying them. In 2017, he stunned the information media when he introduced that his spouse had given delivery to the couple’s first baby. Few even knew that he was married. Nobody had ever requested, he defined.

When Donald J. Trump — a devotee of the sport who was keen on conducting presidential enterprise on the hyperlinks — visited Japan in 2017, the prime minister on the time, Shinzo Abe, recruited Matsuyama for some golf diplomacy. The threesome didn’t hold rating, and Matsuyama — true to his nature — had little to say concerning the expertise.

Together with his victory at Augusta, the expectations on Matsuyama will improve dramatically. Media consideration is prone to attain a fever pitch within the coming weeks, and endorsement provides will flood in.

Though golf has dipped in recognition in Japan in recent times, sports activities analysts are already speculating that Matsuyama’s win may assist gasoline a resurgence within the sport, which has had renewed curiosity as a pandemic-friendly sport that makes it straightforward to take care of a wholesome social distance. The Tokyo Olympics this summer season will even focus consideration on the sport.

Munehiko Harada, president of Osaka College of Sport and Well being Sciences and an knowledgeable on sports activities advertising and marketing, stated he hoped that Matsuyama would use his victory to have interaction in additional golf diplomacy, and that it will ameliorate the anti-Asian rhetoric and violence which have flared throughout the pandemic.

“It might be nice if the victory of Mr. Matsuyama would ease detrimental emotions towards Asians in the US and create a form of a momentum to respect one another,” he stated, including that he hoped President Biden would invite the golfer to the White Home earlier than a scheduled assembly with the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, this week.

In remarks to the information media, Suga praised Matsuyama’s efficiency, saying it “gave braveness to and deeply moved individuals all through Japan.”

The strain is already on for Matsuyama to notch one other victory for the nation.

“I don’t know his subsequent objective, perhaps win one other main or obtain a grand slam, however for the Japan Golf Affiliation, getting a gold medal on the Olympics could be great information,” Yamanaka, the affiliation’s secretary-general, stated.

Information experiences have speculated that Matsuyama shall be drafted to gentle the Olympic caldron on the Video games’ opening ceremony in July.

Requested concerning the risk at a information convention following his victory, Matsuyama demurred. Earlier than he may decide to something, he stated, he must verify his schedule.

Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.

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