Saturday, July 31, 2021

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Hideki Matsuyama is Golf’s Quiet Superstar

Shy, intense and obsessive about his golf game, Hideki Matsuyama has been quietly working toward his elite place in the sport for the past several years.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Hideki Matsuyama stood on the 18th green at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday evening, a winner of the Masters Tournament. There had been no skyward leap, no cathartic, celebratory climb into his caddie’s arms.

Just a hat tip and some hugs — an understated, in-the-moment recognition of a seminal achievement for Matsuyama, the first Asian-born golfer to claim a green jacket, and for golf in Japan.

“When the final putt went in, I wasn’t really thinking of anything,” he said, adding that he was happy for his caddie, Shota Hayafuji, because it was his first win.

“And then, it started sinking in,” Matsuyama said, “the joy of being a Masters champion.”

It was characteristic Matsuyama, the man who used a rain delay on Saturday to play games on his cellphone in his car, the golfer who for years has been unsettling opponents while seeming set on avoiding the spotlight.

“He doesn’t talk a whole lot, and he’s really solid,” Justin Thomas said after his round but before Matsuyama’s triumph.

“I think he’s quite an intense character, actually, even though we don’t really see that,” said Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters winner who has known Matsuyama for years. “I mean, and obsessive about his game.”

“He played like a winner needs to play,” said Xander Schauffele, who was paired with him for the final round on Sunday. “He was like a robot.”

Just under six feet and weighing close to 200 pounds, Matsuyama had been lionized in Japan, where he began to learn golf from his father, long before he rose to No. 2 in the world, even before his victory at Augusta National. He played in the Masters for the first time in 2011, when he tied for 27th and was crowned the low amateur. He shot a 68 in the third round then, a trip through the course that he said was significant to building the fortitude he would need outside the amateur ranks.

“It gave me the confidence that I could play here,” he said. “I could play professional golf as a career.”

He joined the PGA Tour in 2013 and won a few tournaments before a breakout 2017, when he topped the leaderboard at three events and placed second at the United States Open.

It was that year when his penchant for privacy became clear: He announced that he had married months earlier and that he and his wife had had a child.

“No one really asked me if I was married, or, you know, so I didn’t have to answer that question,” he said at a tournament news conference then. “But I felt that after the P.G.A. would be a good time, because our baby is born and I thought that would be a good time to let everyone know.”

The shyness remains. Asked over the weekend how he felt about the coronavirus pandemic having kept more journalists away from the grounds at Augusta National, he replied: “I’m glad the media are here covering it, but it’s not my favorite thing to do, to stand and answer questions. And so with fewer media, it’s been a lot less stressful for me, and I’ve enjoyed this week.”

But in the years before a full ascent into golf’s elite, particularly in Japan, Matsuyama was a promising young player in search of guidance, Scott remembered.

“I found back then he was really interested to learn everything he could,” Scott recalled of his interactions with a younger Matsuyama during the 2013 Presidents Cup, the first of four in which Matsuyama would compete.

“Just someone who’s got a desire to do well is what it looked like,” Scott said later. “He wasn’t afraid to ask the questions, and I think that shows. As timid as some people can be, the desire to do well overshadows the language barrier or being shy or anything like that.”

Until Sunday, however, he had been in something of a slump, even though he was leading the Players Championship in 2020 when the rest of the tournament was canceled as the coronavirus gained a greater foothold in the United States.

This year, Matsuyama said, he had a coach with him from Japan who was helping him to improve his game.

“He’s been a great help, a great benefit,” Matsuyama said on Saturday. “Things that I was feeling in my swing, I could talk to him about that.” He added: “He always gives me good feedback. He has a good eye. It’s like having a mirror for my swing, and it’s been a great help for me. We worked hard, and hopefully now it’s all starting to come together.”

On Sunday evening in Augusta, it did.

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