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Jason Logan: Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama was already ‘Wayne Gretzky times 50’ in Japan. The sky’s the limit now

Jason Logan: Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama was already ‘Wayne Gretzky times 50’ in Japan. The sky’s the limit now
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A Masters that began with an historic moment — Lee Elder, the first Black man to play in the tournament, joining Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as an honorary starter — ended on one too when Hideki Matsuyama won his first major championship.

There was a dash of drama early and a heap of it late, which surely made for some nervous moments both for Matsuyama and the nation he represents. Because there can be no overstating how monumental this is for golf-mad Japan.

How popular is golf in that country? Consider this: In a 2017 Golf Facilities report co-published by Golf Canada and the PGA of Canada, there were only eight fewer golf facilities in Japan than Canada. The tally was 2,298 to 2,290, a tight race until you consider Canada is nearly 10 million square kilometres in size and Japan is not even 400,000. That’s a heck of a lot of flagsticks in the ground.

To continue Franklin’s hockey analogy, Matsuyama let in an early goal on Sunday, employed the trap for much of the game to build a sizable lead, and then hung on for dear life as the clock wound down. In the end he won by a single stroke over Masters rookie Will Zalatoris. A simple doff of the cap and nod to the crowd followed his bogey putt falling on the 18th hole, but there was real emotion in his eyes as he walked toward the scoring area. He understood the enormity of the achievement. Like all Japanese golfers he is followed by a throng of reporters and camera people. He is asked to break down every round of every event, whether he shoots 65 or 75. There is not as much media now given the pandemic, but the spotlight he is under is still glaring.

“Hopefully I’ll be a pioneer in this and many other Japanese will follow, and I’m glad to be able to open the floodgates hopefully,” Matsuyama said through his interpreter in the Masters’ traditional green jacket ceremony inside Augusta National’s Butler Cabin.

“If he won the Masters this year there could be a third huge boom in golf in Japan, following the first boom from the Jumbo Ozaki generation and second boom from the Shingo Katayama generation,” offered Tag Oh on Sunday afternoon when the outcome was still in doubt.

Oh is a South Korean who attended school in Japan to become a golf professional in the 1990s. He now teaches at Musqueam Golf and Learning Academy in Vancouver. “It will bring great joy to the Japan people, especially during this pandemic period and economic downturn,” he added.

Joy is an understatement. When Japan’s Hisako (Chako) Higuchi won the 1977 LPGA Championship, becoming the first Asian golfer to win a major golf title, she was given a ticker-tape parade through Tokyo. Two years ago, Hinako Shibuno, an LPGA Tour rookie, surprised with a win at the Women’s British Open to end Japan’s four-decade major drought and she too is now treated like royalty in her home country.

With due respect to those two women, this win by Matsuyama will be a much bigger deal. It is the Masters after all, and it comes nine days after Japanese teenager Tsubasa Kajitani won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. An amazing double for this summer’s Olympic host.

It should also be pointed out that Matsuyama first played the Masters in 2011 as an amateur. He was invited to the tournament as the winner of the previous year’s Asian Amateur Championship, a tournament co-founded in 2009 by the Masters and British Open. A dozen years later that initiative to further grow the game in Asia has led to a Japanese Masters winner. Surely, as Matsuyama said, he’ll inspire more.

Canadians can appreciate what transpired Sunday. Eighteen years ago, Mike Weir turned our country on its head when he beat Len Mattiace in a Masters playoff. This country’s current crop of PGA Tour players, among them Corey Conners and Mackenzie Hughes, who competed alongside Weir at Augusta this year, have pointed to that moment as the one that inspired them to chase their dreams. We would have liked for another such moment this weekend given that Conners was very much a part of the picture into the weekend, ultimately finishing tied for eighth after a final-round 74, but it was Japan’s turn this time around.

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“I’m really happy,” said Matsuyama. “My nerves didn’t start on the second nine; it was right from the start today and right until the very last putt.”
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