12 Apr 2021 | Feature stories | Professional golf |

CLAYTON: Pressure we've never known

by Mike Clayton

Hideki Matsuyama rejoices in a green jacket that fits a nation of golf nuts just perfectly.
Hideki Matsuyama rejoices in a green jacket that fits a nation of golf nuts just perfectly.

Golf’s highest mountains are hard to climb and many a brilliant player has been saddled with expectations far above the norm. Many times, they exceed what anyone should have to bear.

The best ones – Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods – have been the game’s greatest champions because their mix of incredible games and minds made them irresistible players when the pressure was red hot.

Surely, though, few players have felt the weight of expectation matching the burden Hideki Matsuyama carried from the 55th tee until the end of play at Augusta National today.

Golf exploded in Japan after the 1957 World Cup in which local heroes Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono beat Americans Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret by nine shots. The World Cup, a tournament now fading towards irrelevance, was a big deal then because the best players bothered to turn up. Hogan and Sam Snead had won the previous year in London and, before long, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus was the American team of choice in the 1960s.

The Japanese fell for the game’s charms, the beauty of golf courses and the ritual of their game. The “usual” Japanese round is interrupted half-way for an hour-long lunch and most courses are so far from the suburbs that an hour’s travel to the course is the norm.

Many Japanese might only play a handful of rounds a year; the rest of their golf time is spent waiting in line to hit buckets of balls on one of the country’s 35,000 driving ranges.

The local professional tour – one Peter Thomson was influential in developing when he was one of the game’s finest players – is incredibly popular and so well remunerated are the best players that there is little call for them to travel elsewhere.

Until now, this has been cited as the primary reason no Japanese man has won a major championship.

Treated like gods at home and so used to playing on familiar courses, they struggled away from home where no one could care less they were megastars in their own country.

It’s almost the opposite of the professional game in Australia where our best players must travel and are never going to be accepted as being any good until they play well overseas.

Of course, if Australia had a population of 125 million and an economy to match, we’d likely have a sustainable domestic tour allowing our best to stay home and make a fabulous living.

It would be nice, but would we have seen Thomson, Adam Scott, Jason Day, David Graham, Wayne Grady, Ian Baker-Finch, David Graham, Geoff Ogilvy, Greg Norman, Kel Nagle, Jim Ferrier, Karrie Webb, Jan Stephenson, and Hannah Green winning major championships?

Isao Aoki and Tommy Nakajima, fabulous players both, came close to winning the Opens of the United States and Britain, respectively. But one wonders if the Japanese had been forced to travel because of lack of domestic opportunity whether they’d have had a major champion before now.

Either way, Matsuyama played one of the most pressure-filled rounds of golf any person has ever played. He must have understood the magnitude of what he was about to achieve and its meaning for his compatriots.

Think Adam Scott in 2013, then multiply it by 10.

Matsuyama wasn’t burdened by having to beat a megastar. There was no Nicklaus standing in the way of Bruce Crampton or Tom Weiskopf. No Nick Faldo – or Nicklaus – in the way of Greg Norman. No Tiger Woods to scorch the dreams of Francesco Molinari or Chris DiMarco.

His playing partner, Xander Schauffele, blew his opportunity early in taking four to get down from near the third green, bogeying the difficult fourth and then making such a mess of the fifth that he had to get up and down from the back bunker to save a double-bogey.

From there, however, he was brilliant. And when Matsuyama blew a long, low four-iron into the back pond at the 15th, the American was within two strokes.

We can only imagine the collective exhaling of breath in Japan as Schauffele’s 8-iron slid down the bank and into the water on the 16th. It’s not often you three-putt the 16th in a major championship and pick up two shots on your nearest threat.

In the end, Matsuyama played the 17th perfectly and drove surely up the last. His clumsy but safe bogey from there was all he needed to beat rising American star Will Zalatoris.

Marc Leishman was our best, tied for fifth and Cam Smith, second in November behind Dustin Johnson, was tied for 10th after a final-day 70.

Fortunately, Adam Scott relieved Australia of the burden of wondering when the curse of Augusta would all end.

Matsuyama has done the same for his country – but on an even bigger scale.

The question is: Will it be a one-off, or will he inspire Japan’s best players to leave home more often and adapt their games to courses, cultures and climates less familiar?

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