• Hideki Matsuyama wins 85th Masters at Augusta National
  • 29-year-old from Japan wins his first major by one stroke over Will Zalatoris after nervy finish
  • Matsuyama becomes first male player from his country to land one of big four
AUGUSTA NATIONAL, GEORGIA – After Hideki Matusyama made history for Japanese golf this past weekend, what did we learn from the 85th Masters at Augusta?

 

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Matsuyama claims Green Jacket

As the 85th Masters played out in all its resplendent spring-time colour and sparkle, the Butler Cabin welcomed the latest member for that rarest of appearances, as Hideki Matsuyama claimed his first major, becoming the first male golfer from Japan to do so also.

Having shot 65 on Saturday, the 29-year-old from Ehime begin the final round four shots clear the pack, but by the time the final green arrived on Sunday, he would need every one of those to seal victory at the Augusta National.

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Suffering an almighty wobble at the 15th after playing an aggressive approach, Matsuyama carded a six, but fortunately then saw his nearest rivals fall away – in some instances spectacularly – to walk down the 18th fairway with a two-stroke advantage.

A member on the PGA Tour since 2014, Matsuyama ends a seven-year wait for his first major, and having held the hopes of a nation on his shoulders across the weekend, now becomes a part of Asian sporting folklore.

 

Champion pedigree no fluke

Though Matusyama has been without a win since 2017, his victory at Augusta is no fluke. His win will be a popular one not just in his jubilant home land, but on American and neighbouring shores also.

A runner-up in the US Open four years ago to an emerging Brooks Koepka at Erin Hills, that season however, was a breakthrough campaign for the Japanese player, as he claimed three Tour titles.

Winning two World Golf Championship events in Shanghai and Ohio, sandwiched between both, Matsuyama impressively defended his Waste Management Phoenix Open crown with a playoff win over Webb Simpson in February 2017.

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A former Asian Amateur champion in 2010, and with a T4 at the 2016 PGA Championship and T6 at the 2013 Open at Muirfield also, it is clear to see Matsuyama has the pedigree that has in the past led to major titles.

His winning arguably the biggest tournament in the game however, now cements all that has come before. Matsuyama was not a favourite to become the latest Masters champion this year – far from it – but his credentials make him a deserved winner.

 

Xander left to wonder again

Xander, Xander, Xander.

What could have been for Xander Schauffele, who, whilst a second top-three finish at Augusta in as many years would make for pleasant reading in any other capacity, after sneaking up on the rails again on a major Sunday, his spectacularly collapse will sting.

In truth, Schauffele’s late move came out of the blue over the back nine – some six shots off the pace – but after birdieing Golden Bell, picked up a shot at 13 to round off Amen Corner, and made it 2-4-3 on Chinese Fir.

Sitting on -9, when Matusyama then flew the green at the 15th straight into the drink, Schauffele could have been forgiven a small skip in his step when finding the green in two and making a fourth-straight birdie.

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As the San Diego native stepped onto the 16th tee, Schauffele’s chances were reignited, now just two shots off the lead.

With memories of Charl Schwartzel‘s four-birdie finish a decade earlier now firmly in mind, Schauffele went on the chase to Matsuyama’s lead; leading to disaster.

Looking to find Redbud’s iconic slope into the pin, his tee shot came up short and found the water. Having taken a firm blow to the gut, his attempts at damage limitation then saw a visit to the pines at the back of the green, culminating in a three-over-par six.

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Had Schuaffele even recorded a par at 16, Matsuyama could have been for the taking. But forced to swallow a triple-bogey, both he and the watching world will never know what might have been.

It’s now no less than six T5 finishes or better in majors in the past four years for the Californian, and though this was not his nearest miss in terms of margin of defeat, this feels like one that could take some swallowing for Schauffele.

 

Will Zalatoris be another ‘near-miss’?

Similarly to his west coast compatriot, Will Zalatoris will be left with more than a twinge of frustration, but in the case of the younger player, the American rookie’s runners-up spot – just a single stroke shy of Matsuyama – was nothing less than stunning.

Making his debut at Augusta, the 24-year-old with just one win on the Korn Ferry Tour in Colorado last summer was the epitome of composure this past week, storming up the leaderboard across the weekend.

With many noting a picture, physique and putting style similar to that of Bernhard Langer, Zalatoris enjoyed a steady and consistent second appearance at a major after finishing sixth at Winged Foot last September, carding 70-68-70-71 across the four days.

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And on another day or even week, steady might have been enough. Making the turn at -2 for the day on Sunday, dropped shots at 10 and 12 proved damaging, and by the time Matsuyama had set Japanese fans into a wave of anxiety on 15, Zalatoris was too far off the pace.

Zalatoris is now being hyped as a player capable of winning a major crown, but with the sheer level of competition having risen in the past few years, could this be as close it gets to a Green Jacket, for Will?

 

Masters round-up

Aside from Matsuyama, the story of the week was perhaps Justin Rose, whose 65 on Thursday caught most off guard, given his recent back issues.

Lacking form of late however, an uncharacteristically poor weekend with the putter caught up with the Englishman, but a tied T8 finish is nevertheless a good showing, despite two second-placed finishes in 2015 and 2017 in previous visits.

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Justin Thomas was, until Saturday, firmly in the picture for his second major title, but one mishit shot at 15 during the third round effectively ended his challenge.

Standing only three off the lead, the winner at the Players’ last month then found welcoming watery arms with his third shot, and went on to mark an ‘8’ on his card. It was a hammer blow which the Kentuckian never recovered from.

Hopes for Lee Westwood were high in his 20th appearance at Augusta, but no sooner had his chances of his own first major been backed, an opening round 78 left the Worksop veteran’s chances in tatters.

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But he was not the only player of note to miss the cut. It was a weekend to forget for defending champion Dustin Johnson, who like many found the faster conditions and lightening greens tough going.

Carding +5 over 36 holes, DJ failed to make the weekend grade by two strokes, and any hopes of a rare back-to-back win in Georgia were left similarly in pieces.

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Bryson DeChambeau did however make the cut to his battling credit, but again found his game not up to scratch against a ravenous Augusta course. Even Vijay Singh‘s remarkable viral-bait impression was not enough to elevate the US Open champion to the heights.

As for Rory McIlroy, it is now successive cuts missed at Augusta, but let’s not play that same cracked record, for now at least.

 

The 2021 PGA Championship begins at the Ocean Course in Kiawah Island, South Carolina on May 20.

 

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