Golf’s rocky relationship with the Olympic Games hardly looked like improving when Dustin Johnson, the world No 1, confirmed he would skip the chance to participate in Tokyo. Johnson was, in fact, pretty dismissive over the very concept. The sport’s return to the Olympics in 2016 was overshadowed by a host of high-profile withdrawals, with nervousness within the International Golf Federation regarding the 2021 version wholly understandable as Johnson opted out.
Enter Hideki Matsuyama. Historic Masters glory for the 29-year-old Japanese player on Sunday has added a fresh, positive dynamic to golf and the Tokyo Games. Nick Faldo, the six-times major champion, has already speculated that Matsuyama might be selected to light the Olympic cauldron in July.
“It would be quite an honour,” said Matsuyama. “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 it looks like I will be – I’ll do my best to represent my country and hopefully I’ll play well.”
If this seems understated, it is just Matsuyama’s way. Intriguingly, he took inspiration in his homeland from another sport: Yu Darvish, Shohei Ohtani and Kenta Maeda have all progressed to Major League status in baseball. It is now Matsuyama’s role to guide a new generation, as the first male Japanese winner of a major championship.
“I hope this will affect golf in Japan in a good way,” Matsuyama said after his Masters triumph. “Not only for 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 major champion in Japan. 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.
“It’s thrilling to think that there are a lot of youngsters in Japan watching. Hopefully in five, 10 years, when they get a little older, 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.”
Matsuyama’s victory was ultimately more comfortable than the one-stroke margin would indicate. He could afford to drop a shot at the 72nd hole, with the runner-up, Will Zalatoris, having completed his round. That Matsuyama did not feature in pre-tournament tipping columns was hardly surprising; the former world No 2 had not won a tournament since 2017.
“It’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.”
Matsuyama has risen to 14th and just a place behind Rory McIlroy in the world rankings. Zalatoris, who revelled in his Masters debut, has reached a career high of 27th. “I can play with the best players in the world,” said Zalatoris, who does not yet even have full PGA Tour status.
If Matsuyama and Zalatoris delivered the good, the ugly had come from Gary Player during honorary tee shot duties. In clear view of the cameras Wayne Player, serving as a caddie for his father, appeared to promote a golf ball company in which he is a shareholder. Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus were joined by Lee Elder, the first black man to play in the Masters, for the ceremony. Marc Player, Wayne’s brother, took to social media on Monday to suggest Augusta National had taken a dim view of the golf ball scene.
“Wayne has since correctly been banned from Augusta National and the Masters tournament,” said Marc Player. “What a shame. What an embarrassment. What a bad decision to allow him on the first tee after years of similar shenanigans. My apologies to all.” A tawdry business.