Unlike most of its people, golf is big in Japan and it’s about to get even bigger on the back of Hideki Matsuyama becoming the country’s first men’s major winner with his victory in the 85th Masters.
“I can't imagine what it's going to be like,” admitted the 29-year-old of the reception awaiting him back home as he savoured a one-shot success at Augusta National. “But what a thrill and honour it will be for me to take the Green Jacket back to Japan. And I'm really looking forward to it.”
For a long number of years, Isao Aoki and ‘Jumbo’ Ozaki chiselled away the coalface in majors without managing to come up trumps in the game’s showpiece events.
‘Tommy’ Nakajima, another Japanese stalwart, made a name for himself in a couple of those tournaments but for the wrong reasons.
After a comedy or errors in Rae’s Creek in the 1978 Masters, he made a 13 on the 13th and still holds the unwanted record for the highest single-hole score in the event’s history.
Later that same year, Nakajima was in contention in The Open at St Andrews before putting into the Road Hole and taking four shots to escape, the bunker being christened the ‘Sands of Nakajima’ on the back of that episode.
With two World Golf Championships and three regular PGA Tour titles under his belt, Matsuyama had probably already surpassed what either Aoki, Ozaki or Nakajima on a global stage, but that is beyond doubt now.
“You know, I can't say I'm the greatest,” insisted a modest Matsuyama after receiving his Green Jacket from 2020 winner Dustin Johnson. “However, I'm the first to win a major, and if that's the bar, then I've set it.
“It's thrilling to think that there are a lot of youngsters in Japan watching today. Hopefully in five, ten years, when they get a little older, hopefully some of them will be competing on the world stage.
“But I still have a lot of years left, so they are going to have to compete against me still. But I'm happy for them because hopefully they will be able to follow in my footsteps.”
It was mission accomplished for Matsuyama at the 33rd attempt, having previously recorded five top-six finishes in majors, including a tie for second in the 2017 US Open behind Brooks Koepka at Erin Hills.
Having gone into the event as the world No 25, he was the lowest-ranked winner at Augusta since Charl Schwartzel, who was 29th when he triumphed, but, having been higher than that for a long time, it seemed only a matter of time before one of the big ones fell to Matsuyama.
A decade earlier, he’d finished as the leading amateur in the season’s opening major and now shares the distinction of using that success to go on and win a Green Jacket with Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Cary Middlecoff, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia.
“I hope it will affect golf in Japan in a good way,” replied the new champion to being asked how he felt his success would impact the game in his homeland. “Not only those who are golfers already, but hopefully the youngsters who are playing golf or thinking about playing golf. I hope they will see this victory and think it's cool and try to follow in my footsteps.
“Up until now, we haven't had a (men’s) major champion in Japan, and maybe a lot of golfers or younger golfers, too, thought, well, maybe that's an impossibility. But, with me doing it, hopefully that will set an example for them that it is possible and that, if they set their mind to it, they can do it, too.”
These are heady times for Japanese golf. ‘Smiling Cinderella’ Hinako Shibuno triumphed in the 2019 AIG Women’s British Open, joining 1997 LPGA champion Hisako Higuchi as a women’s major winner.
Looking as though she could be another star in the making, 17-year-old Tsubasa Kajitani won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in a play-off eight days before Matsuyama landed the second leg of a neat double.
All of a sudden, home interest in the golf events in this year’s rescheduled Olympic Games in Tokyo has gone through the roof, with three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo reckoning that Matsuyama might now be in the reckoning to light the cauldron in July.
“It would be quite an honour,” he admitted of that possibility. “But I'm not sure about my schedule. If the schedules worked out and I am in Japan when that happens and they ask me, what an honour that would be.
“I'm really looking forward to the Olympic Games in Tokyo. If I am on the team, and maybe it looks like I will be, I'll do my best to represent my country and, hopefully, I'll play well.”
That hadn’t really been the case before last week, but, he’d already felt his game was close to clicking before storming to the top of the leaderboard on the back of a brilliant 65 in the third round,
“t's been a struggle recently,” he said. “This year, no top 10s, haven't even contended. So I came to Augusta with little or no expectations.
"But, as the week progressed, as I practised, especially on Wednesday, I felt something again. I found something in my swing. And, when that happens, the confidence returns. And so I started the tournament with a lot of confidence.”
That was sky high as he holed the winning putt on Sunday night to create history.