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    Hideki Matsuyama is Golf's Quiet Superstar

    Shy, intense and obsessive about his golf game, Hideki Matsuyama has been quietly working toward his elite place in the sport for the past several years.AUGUSTA, Ga. — Hideki Matsuyama stood on the 18th green at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday evening, a winner of the Masters Tournament. There had been no skyward leap, no cathartic, celebratory climb into his caddie’s arms.Just a hat tip and some hugs — an understated, in-the-moment recognition of a seminal achievement for Matsuyama, the first Asian-born golfer to claim a green jacket, and for golf in Japan.“When the final putt went in, I wasn’t really thinking of anything,” he said, adding that he was happy for his caddie, Shota Hayafuji, because it was his first win.“And then, it started sinking in,” Matsuyama said, “the joy of being a Masters champion.”It was characteristic Matsuyama, the man who used a rain delay on Saturday to play games on his cellphone in his car, the golfer who for years has been unsettling opponents while seeming set on avoiding the spotlight.“He doesn’t talk a whole lot, and he’s really solid,” Justin Thomas said after his round but before Matsuyama’s triumph.“I think he’s quite an intense character, actually, even though we don’t really see that,” said Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters winner who has known Matsuyama for years. “I mean, and obsessive about his game.”“He played like a winner needs to play,” said Xander Schauffele, who was paired with him for the final round on Sunday. “He was like a robot.”Just under six feet and weighing close to 200 pounds, Matsuyama had been lionized in Japan, where he began to learn golf from his father, long before he rose to No. 2 in the world, even before his victory at Augusta National, which earned him $2,070,000. He played in the Masters for the first time in 2011, when he tied for 27th and was crowned the low amateur. He shot a 68 in the third round then, a trip through the course that he said was significant to building the fortitude he would need outside the amateur ranks.“It gave me the confidence that I could play here,” he said. “I could play professional golf as a career.”He joined the PGA Tour in 2013 and won a few tournaments before a breakout 2017, when he topped the leaderboard at three events and placed second at the United States Open.It was that year when his penchant for privacy became clear: He announced that he had married months earlier and that he and his wife had had a child.“No one really asked me if I was married, or, you know, so I didn’t have to answer that question,” he said at a tournament news conference then. “But I felt that after the P.G.A. would be a good time, because our baby is born and I thought that would be a good time to let everyone know.”The shyness remains. Asked over the weekend how he felt about the coronavirus pandemic having kept more journalists away from the grounds at Augusta National, he replied: “I’m glad the media are here covering it, but it’s not my favorite thing to do, to stand and answer questions. And so with fewer media, it’s been a lot less stressful for me, and I’ve enjoyed this week.”But in the years before a full ascent into golf’s elite, particularly in Japan, Matsuyama was a promising young player in search of guidance, Scott remembered.“I found back then he was really interested to learn everything he could,” Scott recalled of his interactions with a younger Matsuyama during the 2013 Presidents Cup, the first of four in which Matsuyama would compete.“Just someone who’s got a desire to do well is what it looked like,” Scott said later. “He wasn’t afraid to ask the questions, and I think that shows. As timid as some people can be, the desire to do well overshadows the language barrier or being shy or anything like that.”Until Sunday, however, he had been in something of a slump, even though he was leading the Players Championship in 2020 when the rest of the tournament was canceled as the coronavirus gained a greater foothold in the United States.This year, Matsuyama said, he had a coach with him from Japan who was helping him to improve his game.“He’s been a great help, a great benefit,” Matsuyama said on Saturday. “Things that I was feeling in my swing, I could talk to him about that.” He added: “He always gives me good feedback. He has a good eye. It’s like having a mirror for my swing, and it’s been a great help for me. We worked hard, and hopefully now it’s all starting to come together.”On Sunday evening in Augusta, it did. More

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    Hideki Matsuyama of Japan Is the First Asian-Born Winner of the Masters

    Matsuyama led the final round from start to finish at Augusta National, becoming the first Asian-born man to win the Masters.AUGUSTA, Ga. — Hideki Matsuyama’s first swing in the final round of the 85th Masters was an unsightly banana-shaped slice that would have looked familiar on the nerve-racking first tee of any golf course in the world.Matsuyama, who entered Sunday’s fourth round with a four-shot lead, had not slept much Saturday night, and the walk Sunday afternoon from the practice range to the golf course was more disquieting.“When I got to the first tee it hit me,” Matsuyama said. “I was really nervous.”But Matsuyama hunted down his wayward opening drive in the left woods and decisively chose an intrepid course, smashing his ball from a bed of wispy pine straw through a slender gap between two trees. Matsuyama’s caddie, Shota Hayafuji, yelped, “Woo,” which elicited a toothy grin from the typically undemonstrative Matsuyama.Matsuyama chipped a shot on the 18th hole from the bunker.Doug Mills/The New York TimesEven though he bogeyed the first hole, the tone for his day was set.A former teenage golf prodigy in Japan who has long been expected to break through on golf’s biggest stage, Matsuyama, 29, fearlessly charged the daunting Augusta National Golf Club layout on Sunday to build a commanding lead. Even with three unsteady bogeys in the closing holes, he persevered with a gutsy final-round 73 to win the 2021 Masters by one stroke and become the tournament’s first Asian-born champion.Matsuyama, who finished 10 under par for the tournament, is also the first Japanese man to win a major golf championship. Will Zalatoris finished second, and Xander Schauffele and Jordan Spieth tied for third place at seven under par.Matsuyama’s groundbreaking victory will make him a national hero in golf-crazy Japan, which has had a rich history of producing world-class male golfers who have come close to winning a major championship over the past several decades but have fallen short. Two Japanese women have won major golf championships. Matsuyama’s breakthrough comes at a time of unrest over racially targeted violence against Asian and Asian-Americans.Matsuyama started off the day 11 under par and remained in front the entire day.Doug Mills/The New York TimesThe new face of Japanese golf is shy and tight-lipped, so much so that when he was married and had a child in 2017 he kept it hidden from the golf world for seven months. Sunday, after receiving his ceremonial green jacket beside the 18th green, Matsuyama stood motionless, his arms at his sides as news photographers took his picture. Urged to look celebratory, he raised both arms overhead and meekly smiled. Emboldened by the winsome reaction it elicited, Matsuyama widened his grin and jabbed his fists in the air twice.Led to a news conference, Matsuyama was asked if he was now the greatest golfer in Japanese history.“I cannot say that I am the greatest,” he answered through an interpreter. “However, I’m the first to win a major, and if that’s the bar, then I set it.”Will Zalatoris, a Masters rookie, finished second in his tournament debut.Doug Mills/The New York TimesMatsuyama was more interested in answering what effect his victory might have on young Japanese golfers.“Up until now, we haven’t had a major champion in Japan, maybe a lot of young golfers thought it was an impossibility,” he said. “Hopefully this will set an example that it is possible and if they set their mind to it, they can do it, too.”Matsuyama, who had the low score for an amateur at the 2011 Masters, was ranked as high as second in the world four years ago, but suddenly fell into a slump. Until Sunday, he had not won a tournament since 2017 and his ranking had slipped to 25th worldwide.But after a sparkling 65 in the third round Saturday — he had an eagle and four birdies in his final eight holes — Matsuyama came into the final round with a heathy cushion atop the leaderboard. He was steady at the start on Sunday, even after the opening-hole bogey. He rebounded with a birdie at the second, then reeled off five pars and cruised into the back nine with a comfortable five-stroke lead.But as often happens on a Masters Sunday, odd, unforeseen things ensued.At the par-5 15th hole, Matsuyama sized up a second shot in the fairway that was 227 yards from the flagstick. He said he “flushed” a 4-iron but his golf ball rocketed off the green and scooted into the water behind the hole. It was no small misstep, not with his playing partner Schauffele about to birdie his fourth consecutive hole. Matsuyama did not lose his poise or persistence. Taking a penalty stroke, he prudently chipped to the fringe of the green and two-putted for a bogey.Schauffele was trailing by only two strokes when the duo stepped on the 16th tee. Still chasing the leader, Schauffele said he felt he had to go for another birdie, but his aggressive tee shot was short of the green and trickled into a pond.Schauffele said the notoriously swirling Augusta National winds double-crossed him, a familiar rejoinder, and likely an accurate one.“I hit a good shot; it turned out bad,” Schauffele, who made a triple bogey on the hole, said. “I’ll sleep OK tonight — I might be tossing around a little.”The turn of events made the Masters rookie Zalatoris the closest pursuer to Matsuyama, especially after Zalatoris made a lengthy, downhill par putt on the 18th hole to finish the final round at nine under par, just two strokes behind Matsuyama.With two holes left to play, Matsuyama hit a brilliant drive in the middle of the 17th fairway, launched a perfect wedge shot to the middle of the green and two-putted for par. At the 18th hole, he hit another perfect drive but his approach shot faded and landed in the greenside bunker to the right of the green. His recovery from the sand stopped six feet from the hole, but two putts still gave him the championship.The second place finish by Zalatoris, who is in his first year on the PGA Tour, will raise his profile in the golf community considerably, especially in combination with his result at the 2020 United States Open where he tied for sixth. Leaving the 18th hole Sunday, Zalatoris, 24, received a standing ovation from the fans ringing the green.“Absolute dream,” Zalatoris said. “I’ve been dreaming about it for 20 years.” He added: “I think the fact that I’m frustrated I finished second in my third major says something. Obviously, my two majors as a pro, I finished sixth and runner-up. I know if I keep doing what I doing, I’m going to have a really good chance in the future.”Matsuyama also received a hearty, long ovation as he left the 18th green on Sunday. When he sank his final putt and the victory was assured, Matsuyama, unlike most golfers in that situation, had no visible reaction.“I really wasn’t thinking anything,” Matsuyama acknowledged. “Then it started to sink in, the joy of being a Masters champion. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like, but what a thrill and honor it will be for me to take the green jacket back to Japan.” More

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    Hideki Matsuyama Charges Into the Lead at the Masters

    After a 78 minute rain delay the golf course was far more forgiving with significantly slower greens, and Matsuyama will head into Sunday’s final round 11-under par.AUGUSTA, Ga. — The third round of the Masters tournament began Saturday with a gusting wind that bedeviled the field and seemed to make the firm, already crusty Augusta National Golf Club greens more parched, speedy and vexing.Then, just before 4 p.m., a rainstorm with the potential for thunder and lightning sent the golfers scurrying to the safety of the clubhouse. After a 78 minute suspension of play, players returned to a golf course that was far more forgiving with dampened, significantly slower greens. The wind had all but disappeared.Sensing the reprieve, many in the field attacked.Leading the charge was Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, who shot a sparkling 65 by playing his final eight holes in six under par. At 11 under par for the tournament, Matsuyama, 29, will take an authoritative four-shot lead into Sunday’s final round. Four golfers are tied for second: second-round leader Justin Rose, Xander Schauffele, Marc Leishman and Masters rookie Will Zalatoris.If Matsuyama, the 2017 P.G.A. Tour rookie of the year and a runner-up to Tiger Woods at the 2019 Masters, can retain his lead on Sunday, he will become the first Asian to win the Masters. He is the first Japanese player to hold the lead at the end of any Masters round.Hideki Matsuyama watched his chip shot on the 18th green.Doug Mills/The New York TimesMatsuyama said he felt relaxed during the weather delay because the last shot he hit before the suspension of play — a drive off the 11th tee — was his worst swing of the round.“I thought I can’t hit anything worse than that,” he said through an interpreter. “Maybe it relieved some of the pressure. I did hit it well after the delay.”That is an understatement. Matsuyama, who is ranked 25th in the world, put on a superlative display of ball striking that may someday make up much of the highlight reel of the 2021 Masters.Matsuyama began Saturday with six successive pars and caught Rose with a birdie on the seventh hole. Then he poured it on, beginning with his approach to the elusive 11th green that resulted in a converted 12-foot birdie putt. Matsuyama’s tee shot to the tricky par-3 12th settled only eight feet from the hole for another birdie. After three successive pars, Matsuyama eagled the par-5 15th hole when his second shot — a towering, precise 5-iron — landed four feet from the flagstick. His birdie putt on the par-3 16th was even closer, which Matsuyama banged home confidently. The 17th hole was more of the same after two exceedingly accurate shots from the tee and the fairway.Hideki Matsuyama, left, and Xander Schauffele both made eagles on the 15th hole.Doug Mills/The New York TimesThe most nervous moment Matsuyama had on the back nine was when he flew his second shot 20 yards over the 18th green, but a nifty bump-and-run pitch left a tap-in par putt.After the rainstorm, Matsuyama conceded he, “hit practically every shot exactly like I wanted to do.”If Matsuyama wins on Sunday, it would be the second victory for a Japanese golfer on the grounds in the last eight days. On Apr. 3, 17-year-old Tsubasa Kajitani, who is from Okayama, Japan, won this year’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur tournament.“It was fantastic,” Matsuyama said of Kajitani’s victory. “I hope I can follow in her shoes and make Japan proud.”Matsuyama had seven P.G.A. Tour and European Tour victories from 2014 to 2017. He said there were a variety of reasons he has been winless for the last few years, but noted that this year he began traveling with a Japanese coach, Hidenori Mezawa, which he called a “great benefit.”“Things that I was feeling in my swing, I could talk to him about that, and he gives me good feedback,” Matsuyama said. “It’s like having a mirror for my swing. Hopefully now it’s all starting to come together.”A weather warning went out and play was suspended as severe thunderstorms approached.Doug Mills/The New York TimesJordan Spieth waited to putt on the 18th green as inclement weather passed over Augusta National Golf Club.Doug Mills/The New York TimesBefore the weather delay, most of the second-round leaders played inconsistently or downright struggled. Rose, who began Saturday with a one-stroke lead at seven under par, opened with consecutive birdies on the first two holes but then had successive bogeys on the fourth and fifth holes. Rose rallied to shoot even par the rest of the way. Brian Harman, who trailed Rose by one stroke to begin his round, slumped to a 74 that left him at four under par for the tournament.The most roller coaster outing was turned in by Jordan Spieth, who in the second round had moved to within two strokes of Rose. On the seventh hole on Saturday, Spieth sent his approach shot over the green then flubbed a chip shot and hit an overly aggressive bunker shot that led to a double bogey. He was in even worse trouble on the next hole when his tee shot was so far left it appeared he was almost replaying the seventh. Buried in the woods, Spieth lofted an iron shot over a tall stand of pine trees that landed three feet from the eighth hole for an easy birdie. A chip-in birdie on the 10th hole followed, as did an eagle at the 15th, but those successes were offset by the earlier setbacks, and Spieth concluded with a round of 72, trailing Matsuyama by six shots.Zalatoris seemed the most at ease as the third round began with a string of pars and a nifty birdie on the par-4 third hole. But Zalatoris, 24, did not appear to adjust well to the slower green speeds after the rainstorm, and missed several birdie putt attempts on the back nine to shoot 71.Justin Rose and Will Zalatoris are two of four golfers tied for second place headed into Sunday.Doug Mills/The New York TimesCorey Conners, with a hole in one on the sixth hole, made the biggest early move up the leaderboard on Saturday to finish at six-under-par, just behind the gaggle tied for second.Schauffele, who was grouped with Matsuyama, shot an impressive 68 and still had time to exchange repartee in Japanese with his playing partner. Schauffele’s maternal grandparents lived in Japan and he said he has picked up some of the language.Or as Matsuyama said of his conversation with Schauffele: “We didn’t get a chance to talk a lot, but when we did, we exchanged some good Japanese jokes and had a good laugh.”Matsuyama and Schauffele are paired together again for Sunday’s final round, and are scheduled to tee off at 2:40 p.m. Eastern time. More