By Spencer Robinson
Not even major champions are immune from COVID-19 protocols. From the solitude of his hotel room, Hideki Matsuyama can attest to that.
Less than 72 hours after etching his name into Asian golfing folklore on the hallowed fairways of Augusta National Golf Club, the champion of the 85th Masters Tournament was back on home soil.
Normal circumstances would have dictated the rolling out of the red carpet in honour of the new favourite son in the Land of the Rising Sun.
However, with Japan remaining in the grip of the pandemic, neither were there any adoring followers on hand to fete him at the airport, nor attention-seeking politicians looking to exploit a gimme photo opportunity.
There was no fanfare for the fan favourite, who was summarily whisked from airport to hotel to serve a mandatory 14-day quarantine.
This necessarily low-key return was in stark contrast to the spontaneous outpouring of joy and euphoria that erupted across Japan at 8 am last Monday morning (Tokyo time) when Matsuyama sealed his success with a tap-in bogey on the 18th green at Augusta, some 11,209 kilometres away from his home city.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, along with Japanese golfing legends Isao Aoki and Masahiro “Massy” Kuramoto, caught the mood as perfectly as Matsuyama had judged treacherous chip shots from behind the greens on Nos. 13 and 15 as Masters Sunday headed towards its denouement.
“It was really wonderful,” said Suga. “As the coronavirus drags on, his achievement moved our hearts and gave us courage.”
Aoki and Kuramoto, two of Japan’s most revered golfing figures, expressed similar admiration.
Aoki, chairman of the Japan Golf Tour and the first Japanese player to win on the PGA Tour at the 1983 Hawaiian Open, referenced how Matsuyama has now lifted the spirits of the nation twice, the first occasion coming 10 years ago when he was the low amateur in his maiden appearance at Augusta.
“Just before Matsuyama went to America for the Masters in 2011, we were struck by an earthquake. In brilliantly shining as the low amateur, he gave great courage to those who were affected,” said Aoki, a runner-up to Jack Nicklaus in the 1980 U.S. Open.
“This time, we have the COVID-19 pandemic with various restrictions imposed to stop the spread of the virus. By winning the Masters at a time where so many people are sad and depressed, Matsuyama has again given us hope. The sincere gratitude and blessing of the people of Japan are with Matsuyama.”
Kuramoto, seventh on the Japan Tour’s all-time money list and now chairman of the Professional Golfers’ Association of Japan (PGAJ), was equally effusive in his praise.
No-one doubts he has the mental fortitude to cope with such suffocating scrutiny and expectation, as he proved on the homeward stretch at Augusta.
Kuramoto, whose best major finish was a tie for fourth at the 1982 Open Championship, said: “As a fellow professional golfer, I’m in awe of this achievement and am proud it was accomplished by our PGAJ member.
“Great news is hard to come by these days, so Matsuyama’s historic victory has filled our hearts with pride and happiness, and will remain with us as a golden moment during a very difficult time.
“I believe this victory is a turning point which will see him excel beyond our imagination and am confident this is a step closer to the gold medal at this year’s Olympics, and many more major victories.”
With the Masters still fresh in the mind, calls to bestow upon Matsuyama the honour of igniting the flame at the opening ceremony of the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics in July have been gathering pace.
Should the Games proceed, pressure on Matsuyama to deliver a gold medal will significantly intensify with the weight of a nation resting squarely on his broad shoulders.
Part of his reason for being back in Japan now is to confirm that physically he’s up to the task, too. When his quarantine is complete, he’ll head to the Ajinomoto National Training Centre to undergo an intensive medical check that is compulsory for all athletes who will represent Japan in the Olympics.
It should, of course, be a formality for a strapping 29-year-old who is seemingly approaching the peak of his powers – as Matsuyama will attempt to underline when he heads back to the United States for the year’s second major, the PGA Championship, May 20-23 at Kiawah Island in South Carolina.
For now, as he serves his quarantine, there’s a sense that Matsuyama may just be enjoying his enforced period far from the maddening crowds.
It’s a retreat into blissful self-isolation during which he can reflect on what’s gone before, prepare a sushi-inspired menu for next year’s Champions Dinner at Augusta National, and plot for a future that will, inevitably, become increasingly high-profile should his career trajectory continue to trend sharply upwards.
In the midst of Matsuyama-mania, it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was 17-year-old Tsubasa Kajitani who had the distinction of becoming the first golfer from Japan to savour success at Augusta National.
Eight days before her male compatriot’s coronation, Kajitani won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, prevailing in a sudden-death playoff.
She may not yet be a household name, but Gareth Jones, the Japan Golf Association’s head coach who has been working with Kajitani for the past three years, believes it won’t be long before she is.
“She’s a quiet and determined girl, and has a drive that is quite unique,” said Australian Jones, citing Kajitani’s main qualities as her ballstriking and mental determination. “She’s taking English lessons and when she gains some confidence in her language skills she’ll probably start to push towards an international career.”
Despite her tender years, Kajitani has indicated an intention to turn pro this year, meaning she’d be unable to defend her title in Augusta in 2022.
Japanese golf fans, though, can draw comfort from the fact that Matsuyama, now armed with a lifetime exemption to the Masters, will be making that journey down Magnolia Lane for decades to come.
Spencer Robinson is the communications manager for the Asia-Pacific Golf Confederation.
Top: Hideki Matsuyama tips his cap after holing out on the 72nd hole to win the Masters.