Hideki Matsuyama, the ‘Tiger Woods’ of Japan, overcame so much Masters pressure

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Pressure in sports and its level of intensity comes in all shapes and sizes. It differs from athlete to athlete and from event to event. For Hideki Matsuyama, who woke up Sunday

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Pressure in sports and its level of intensity comes in all shapes and sizes. It differs from athlete to athlete and from event to event.

For Hideki Matsuyama, who woke up Sunday morning with a four-shot lead entering the final round of the 85th Masters, he carried with him to the first tee a weight of pressure on his shoulders that perhaps no other player in golf has ever felt.

Matsuyama carried the hopes of the entire nation of Japan with him to his 2:40 p.m. tee time Sunday. That exterior hope was the 15th club in his bag and one he’d rather have left behind in the car or the clubhouse.

Worse yet, Matsuyama had to attempt to sleep on Saturday night with the collective burden of expectation of 126 million golf-crazed Japanese people spooned beside him under the covers with all of their anticipation for a first-ever men’s major champion.

“I felt sorry for him [Saturday] night because I think [it] was probably one of the hardest sleeps he’s ever had,’’ said South African Charl Schwartzel, who won the 2011 Masters, the same year Matsuyama was the low amateur. “There was a lot riding on him.’’

Matsuyama, en route to winning the Masters by one shot Sunday, had to overcome all of those things rattling around inside his mind as much as he had to stave off the likes of Will Zalatoris, Xander Schauffele and Jordan Spieth outside on Augusta National.

That made his victory — the first man from Japan to win a major championship — as impressive as any we’ve seen in recent memory.

“He [had] a lot of pressure on himself,’’ Spieth said. “I remember the feeling on a four-shot lead, and he’s got Japan on his back and maybe Asia on his back. I can’t imagine 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 … it’s really good for the game of golf globally.’’

Hideki Matsuyama
Reuters

What people don’t see when Matsuyama plays tournaments — not just major championships, but every tournament — is the throng of Japanese media that shadow his every move. There isn’t a thing he does that’s not captured by a camera lens and scrutinized by the eyes of multiple reporters.

Matsuyama, before this victory, already was rock star in Japan, but a very reluctant one. He’s so private that even his peers on the PGA Tour are tongue-tied when asked to share an anecdote about him.

One thing that’s certain, though, is Matsuyama’s significance to his country.

“He’s a bit like a Tiger Woods to the rest of the world, Hideki in Japan,’’ Adam Scott said.

When he was asked on Saturday night, after his third-round 65 set the stage for Sunday’s win, about the large contingent of Japanese media that usually follow him being significantly pared down this week because of COVID-19 and fewer credentials issued, he delivered an honest and sobering answer.

“I’m not sure how to answer this in a good way, but being in front of the media is still difficult,’’ he said. “I’m glad the media are here covering it, but it’s not my favorite thing to do, to stand and answer questions. So, with fewer media, it’s been a lot less stressful for me, and I’ve enjoyed this week.’’

These things cannot be tangibly measured, of course, but the lack of Japanese media present at Augusta had to help ease nerves Sunday.

Reiko Takekawa, a Japanese golf writer based in California who was not credentialed this week, could not help but notice through her television screen a different Matsuyama than the person she’s covered her entire career.

“He’s seemed very relaxed today, and he’s been smiling, which you don’t see that often,’’ she told The Post by phone. “His mental outlook has looked very, very good today.’’

Asked what Matsuyama’s relationship with the Japanese press is, Takekawa said, “Oh, bad. Very bad. He’s always, always reading everything, all the articles written in Japan about him. Every single story. I told Bob [Turner, his interpreter] to tell him to stop doing that.’’

After his victory, Matsuyama said he “can’t imagine what it’s going to be like’’ when he returns home, adding, “What a thrill and honor it will be for me to take the green jacket back to Japan. I’m really looking forward to it.’’

The irony to his victory is that Matsuyama has rid himself of the pressure to win a major but ratcheted up intensity of the very unwanted attention to himself that he detests.

The price of a green jacket.

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Mark Cannizzaro

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