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As Masters champion, spotlight shines more intensely on reserved Hideki Matsuyama

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Standing near the giant oak tree outside the Augusta National clubhouse, Hideki Matsuyama stuffed a battery pack in his pocket, dangled a cord around his green jacket and plunged an IFB into his right ear. It was 8:45 a.m. local time in Tokyo, and the newest Masters champion was about to go live.

Over the past five hours Matsuyama had survived a nerve-wracking final round, dapped up defending champion Dustin Johnson and raised his fists in a lusty celebration that he’d wanted to reserve for the 72nd hole but that somehow, in the moment, didn’t feel right. Now it was time for his least favorite part of being a famous professional athlete: Talking about himself.

Interviewer Ryusuke Ito, an on-course reporter for the Tokyo Broadcasting System, was 6 feet away, masked, and speaking animatedly into his microphone. Color commentator Tommy Nakajima was back in the Tokyo studios, piping in questions of his own. During the 5-minute interview, Matsuyama smiled and occasionally laughed, his hands clasped behind his back, but he never answered for more than 30 seconds. When he finished, he audibly exhaled.

Matsuyama, 29, has spoken previously about wanting to be a pioneer, to serve as an inspiration for his fellow countrymen. So in his first interview after winning the Masters, what was he saying? 

What was he thinking?

How did he feel to be the first men’s major champion from Japan?

“He was working to keep things under control,” Ito said afterward through an interpreter, “but he’s over the moon. He’s definitely over the moon.”

It was a fitting scene for a player whose talent is undeniable but whose personal backstory is either left unexplored or lost in translation for the mainstream golf audience outside Asia.

What needed no further explanation Sunday was how much the title meant to him. Walking off the 18th green, Matsuyama had tears in his eyes as CBS’ Venice camera captured his every step. His caddie, Shota Hayafuji, returned the pin, removed his hat and, in a show of respect, solemnly bowed.

“I can’t even really explain it now,” said Hayafuji, still clutching the rolled-up flag. “I think the feeling will come later.”

Matsuyama had become a national hero as his journey came full circle here at Augusta National, which first extended him an invitation to the Masters more than a decade ago. In 2008, then-tournament chairman Billy Payne announced the formation of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, designed to bring together the top amateurs from the region in hopes of creating the next generation of stars. By dangling an exemption into the Masters to the tournament winner, the hope was that the young amateur would eventually hold both trophies.

“And today,” chairman Fred Ridley declared during the trophy ceremony, with Matsuyama seated behind him, “that hope has become a reality.”

Indeed, Matsuyama has been stamped for stardom ever since he won the second annual AAC in 2010 (and went back-to-back the following year). Nobuhito Sato, a former Japan Tour player-turned-commentator, recalled hitting balls alongside the then-18-year-old at the Japan Open that year. “I knew nothing about him,” Sato said via email, “but he was hitting them so good, and his iron shots sounded different from the others.” Sato, a nine-time tour winner, missed the cut that week; Matsuyama, still just an amateur, finished third. Wins soon followed, and before long, it became obvious: The hopes of a golf-mad nation were pinned on Matsuyama’s broad back.

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Japan is slightly smaller than the state of California, but the country boasts roughly 2,500 courses – nearly double the amount in any U.S. state. Pro events feature teeming crowds. “The crowds in Japan are fanatical,” Adam Scott said. The nation has produced a pair of women’s major champions – and the latest Augusta National Women’s Amateur champion, Tsubasa Kajitani – but never a men’s Grand Slam winner despite the global success of Isao Aoki (first to win on the PGA Tour), Jumbo Ozaki (94 Japan Tour wins) and Nakajima (former top-5 player in the world).

Matsuyama, though, has always been viewed through a different prism. “It was his confidence,” said Ryuji Imada, who became the third Japanese player to win on Tour, in 2008. “He’s a big kid, compared to some of the other Japanese players who have come out. He’s 6 feet. He’s probably 210 pounds. He hits it a ton. We really haven’t had that from a Japanese player in a while, and you need that, to be a modern player and compete physically with the other guys.”

Said Eiko Oizumi, a freelancer golf writer in Japan: “Because Hideki is the only Japanese player who has the possibility to win the big events around the world, Japanese people expect him to win majors.” And the Masters was the ultimate prize.

But as Matsuyama's profile expanded and his world ranking soared, the shy kid turned even more inward. Few details emerged about his interests, his motivations, his dreams. Every tidbit was precious: How even in the age of Bryson DeChambeau, he’s often the last to leave the range. How while living in a tourist hub like Orlando, he frequents chain restaurants like IHOP and Waffle House. How as an avid baseball fan, he used to bring his glove to tournaments to play catch.

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“He’s pretty shy, but typical Japanese though,” Sato said. “Many of us Japanese are like him. It takes time to know what he is really like as a person.” Scott has dined with Matsuyama and partnered with him at the Presidents Cup, but still he had little insight into his personality: “That’s a hard one to sum up. He’s quite an intense character, actually, even though we don’t see that. He’s obsessive about his game.” 

In the early 2010s, Matsuyama represented a stark contrast to Ryo Ishikawa, who was a budding superstar and media darling, Japan’s version of Rickie Fowler, with the colorful ensemble to boot. The same age as Matsuyama, Ishikawa was dubbed the “Bashful Prince” and routinely held court with reporters; Matsuyama was tight-lipped and, though he grew to understand his professional obligations, still dreaded the post-round debriefs. “He doesn’t really go out of his way to make everybody happy, which is what you need to do to be successful,” Imada said. “You have to say no. You can’t do everything. He’ll take practice over doing an interview for 45 minutes, every day. He’s kept his blinders on and is very focused.”

It’s a common refrain among the Japanese press that while Matsuyama doesn’t speak much English, well, he doesn’t speak much Japanese either. They’ve had a complex and complicated relationship with the superstar over the past few years, and multiple reporters said it’s harder to interview Matsuyama than any other player on Tour. That's why even among the home press corps there’s a dearth of information surrounding Matsuyama. Most famously, in 2017, they were shocked to learn that not only was he married, but he also had a child.

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“People know that he’s a great golfer – probably the best Japanese golfer ever,” Sato said. “But since he keeps a lot of things secret, many people don’t know anything other than that.”

Picture the typical media crush that accompanies Tiger Woods at tournaments – a throng that’ll include a few dozen print reporters, a host of TV reporters and a throng of cameramen. Matsuyama has a similar entourage, but with one key difference: The reporters aren’t pressed for time, needing to squeeze in a few questions during the limited availability. Knowing they’ll be there for upwards of a half hour, some scribes even bring a chair. They're detailed interrogations.

“The media scrutiny, it’s because we haven’t had enough success in golf yet,” Imada said. “As a country, we love golf, and if you’re good at it, we take notice. It’s a big deal.”

Matsuyama acknowledged the awkward dynamics Saturday night at the Masters, where he staked himself to a four-shot lead through three rounds. Because of travel restrictions related to COVID-19, only a few media members made the trek to Augusta, instead of the usual 25 or so. When asked whether the spotlight was easier to handle this week, Matsuyama offered a window into his mindset: “I’m not sure how to answer this in a good way, but being in front of the media is still difficult. It’s not my favorite thing to do, to stand and answer questions. It’s been a lot less stressful for me, and I’ve enjoyed this week.”

Even if he’s not a willing author of his own story, Matsuyama’s performance this week will resonate for decades to come.

Coming into the Masters with little expectations after failing to contend all year, Matsuyama shot a second-nine 30 Saturday to surge into the lead. It was a stunning turn of events: He hadn’t won since August 2017, when he romped at Firestone to ascend to No. 2 in the world and then briefly held the lead on the back nine at the PGA Championship before closing with two late bogeys. So crushed while meeting with the press afterward, he buried his head in his hands and sobbed.

Little wonder Matsuyama set his alarm clock for 9:30 a.m. Sunday but awoke hours earlier, too nervous to drift back asleep. He arrived at the course early and looked jittery on the opening hole, when a drive into the trees led to a bogey and, coupled with two birdies from Masters rookie Will Zalatoris, cut his four-shot lead into a one-stroke advantage, just 15 minutes into the round.

But Matsuyama never surrendered his lead, rebounding with three birdies and creating as much as a six-shot cushion on a day when no one in the last six pairings broke 70. Xander Schauffele came closest late, pulling within two shots after the 15th hole, but any dramatic tension was short-lived: The wind flipped on Schauffele’s 8-iron into the par-3 16th and he found the water short. Matsuyama could afford to bogey three of the last four holes and still win by one, at 10-under 278.

“Man, he was something else,” Schauffele said afterward. “He played like a winner needs to play. He was like a robot.”

Schauffele had a unique perspective on Matsuyama’s triumph, his maternal grandparents having lived in Japan. “No one really wants to talk about how much pressure is on him,” he said. “But you look at the media that follows him. You look at what he’s done in his career. He’s a top-ranked player with a ton of pressure on him, and that’s the hardest way to play. So big kudos to him and his team. I’m sure a lot of people are having some beers over there.”

Sporting his new green jacket for the first time, Matsuyama made a typically short speech during the trophy presentation, saying in Japanese how honored he was to win at Augusta National and punctuating his remarks with a loud “Thank you!”, like a rocker exiting the stage after a lively set, his arms held aloft in triumph.

He had a busy night ahead. A period of reflection with his team. A dinner with club members. More private celebrations later in the evening. But first, he headed to the flash area outside the clubhouse, where Ito and a captive audience were waiting to hear from the new Masters champion.

At the end of the interview, Matsuyama delivered a message directly to his home region, about how proud he was to have represented them today. Then he unhooked his earpiece, thanked Ito and was escorted by a green jacket to his next engagement. He threw back his head, relief washing over him. Only a few more interviews remained.