Two things make Hideki Matsuyama similar to the average golfer. The first is that he does not typically putt very well. The second comes from a comment he made in 2017, when he was asked about the most fun thing he did during his time off. “Probably,” he said, “drinking sake.” The similarities to almost anyone else on the planet end there: There are very few people, if any, who can consistently hit a golf ball as well as Matsuyama. He is the only person who has been in the top 10 in approach shots for seven straight years. He is good at basically every conceivable shot on a golf course. The fact that he’s ranked 147th on the PGA Tour in putting has not just prevented him from winning a major. It has prevented him from winning all of the majors.
There are a handful of story lines coming out of Augusta—some about dominant golfers who flopped and some who exploded onto the international scene—but none are as urgent as Matsuyama playing such badass golf that he rendered his fatal flaw moot. Matsuyama won the Masters on Sunday, his first major, and in doing so, became the first Japanese male golfer ever to win a major tournament (two Japanese women, Chako Higuchi and Hinako Shibuno, won at the 1977 LPGA and 2019 Women’s British Open, respectively). This is not some underdog story; Matsuyama was a 35-to-1 bet to win the tournament, tied for 16th-best odds. Everyone in golf knows how good he is. He’d won five PGA tournaments and finished in the top 10 in seven majors before the Masters. “Nobody can stop him” when he plays like this, golfer Joaquin Niemann told Gold Digest’s Alan Shipnuck.
Matsuyama had an obvious path to winning any tournament he was in: putt better than he normally does or strike the ball so well that putting doesn’t matter. He basically did both at Augusta. On Saturday, after a rain delay, he hit an uninterrupted parade of perfect shots on the way to a 65, tied for the best round of the tournament. There are all sorts of narratives that emerge after any Masters, and from a purely golfing standpoint, this one was simple: A guy knew what he needed to do and he did it. There’s a lot you need to win at Augusta, but it’s a good idea to have the capability to solve your own biggest problems and hit great golf shots.
Augusta is a place where conventional wisdom goes to die and weaknesses you didn’t know you had become exposed. You never know. That is the enduring lesson of the course. This weekend, the favorites ducked out early, players’ weaknesses became strengths, and narratives were turned on their head, because that’s what Augusta is designed to do. It is 18 holes of small breaks and big slopes that can change the way a player is viewed for the rest of their life.
If you are collecting lessons from the 2021 Masters, you can start here: It was weird. Early in the tournament, it was clear that a number of names that draw in casual fans were nonevents: Defending champion Dustin Johnson missed the cut, Brooks Koepka, recovering from surgery, did too. Golfers who, in theory, could contend—Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Patrick Cantlay, and Jason Day—didn’t come close to making the cut. The strangest journey was that of Rory McIlroy, who had made the cut at every Masters since 2011 until this tournament. In six of the last seven Masters before this week, he finished in the top 10. McIlroy, who has won four Major championships and is only 31 years old, has figuratively been in the golf wilderness for a few months, and he ended up in the literal wilderness at the Masters. After missing the cut at the Players Championship last month, McIlroy said his swing issues were the most frustrating part of his game, which were influenced by the increasing distance gained by Bryson DeChambeau, who has added weight, muscle, and swing speed over the past two years. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t anything to do with what Bryson did at the U.S. Open,” McIlroy said in March, referencing DeChambeau’s dominant victory at Winged Foot. McIlroy’s attempt to chase distance, and DeChambeau, has not gone particularly well. He never looked comfortable on the course and missed the cut and was so inaccurate he hit his father with a shot.
DeChambeau’s tournament was not much better. He made the cut but was one of the worst golfers over the weekend, finishing five over. He loudly complained about the wind and expressed his dismay that Augusta National doesn’t allow green reading books, which he calls “calibration tools.” And then he broke down his troubles with a quote that reads like a bot was trained to start coming up with DeChambeau quotes:
“I need to understand how the ball flies off of downhill slopes into uphill greens, and conversely uphill slopes into downhill greens, and all of the above,” he said. “We just can’t calculate and adjust the numbers very well, and the wind is pretty tricky out here. The greens are bouncing pretty hard, and that’s what happened.”
DeChambeau knows far more about golf than I do and is better than all but a handful of humans at the sport, but if I may offer some advice: You cannot calculate your way to the top of the leaderboard at Augusta. I believe numbers can tell the story of just about everything in sports, but Augusta is different. There was no real rhythm to the leaderboard on Sunday: Matsuyama usually can’t putt; neither can Corey Conners. Jordan Spieth isn’t strong off the tee. Xander Schauffele is good in every category, and Will Zalatoris, who finished second, is good at everything too, but had the disadvantage of being a Masters debutant. The more people you listen to who’ve succeeded at Augusta, the more you realize that though there are some prerequisites to winning there, a lot of it simply comes down to feeling (reading the greens is a big one). You will hit perfect shots that may not be rewarded. You will hit a slope the wrong way and it’ll roll back. How you reckon with this determines how well you play. You can help yourself: It’s an easier course for lefties, for instance. But really, the ingredients to playing well at Augusta are like the breakthrough scientific study this week that found that “there are forms of matter and energy vital to the nature and evolution of the cosmos that are not yet known to science.” Bryson will find similar results on his study.
Spieth, of course, is sort of an anti-Bryson. He is not good off the tee and in the context of the modern game—the one where everyone is chasing Bryson—he never will be. But what he does have is an ability to reckon with the course. You will, at some points, end up like Justin Thomas, with the camera following as your ball literally floats away in the creek. What you do next determines how well you play at Augusta. In Thomas’s case, the answer is not good.
Matsuyama did not play a perfect round Sunday—his bogey at 15 could have opened a door for Schauffele or Zalatoris—but he’d built enough of a lead to where he didn’t need perfection late. This led to some boring stretches, as it was pretty clear it would take a colossal meltdown for Matsuyama to relinquish the lead. What the tournament could not offer in big names it offered in new names like the 24-year-old Zalatoris, who doesn’t even have full membership on the PGA Tour but has now threatened to win two majors after coming in sixth at the U.S. Open last year. Schauffele will win a major some day, and could have applied real pressure if he hadn’t sent it into the water on 16. This was not red meat for the casual fan, although Zalatoris is friends with Tony Romo.
When it became clear Matsuyama would win the tournament, the broadcast and other observers started to speculate what it would mean for the sport in Japan and how much Matsuyama would benefit personally. (The idea it could make Matsuyama a billion dollars was thrown around. Another estimate says he could make $600 million.) Whether Matsuyama becomes a global icon depends, really, on whether he wants to. “He’s really, really shy,” Eiko Oizumi, a writer and photographer for Golf Today Japan, told Golf Magazine. Matsuyama is an intensely private person. Golf Magazine’s Alan Bastable wrote that when Matsuyama announced he was a father, it “was a stunner, not so much because no one knew Matsuyama’s wife was pregnant but more so because no one knew Matsuyama was married.” Matsuyama’s response? “No one really asked me if I was married, so I didn’t have to answer that question.” He’s much more famous than he was last week. This touching video of his caddie bowing to the course has gone viral:
Could not love the humility of this moment more. Acknowledgment that even in Glory, no one is greater than the sport itself pic.twitter.com/IppqvwcB5P— roger bennett (@rogbennett) April 11, 2021
The lesson, of course, is that you cannot calculate your way out of Augusta. If this thing was based on numbers, Matsuyama would never have putted well enough to hang on those fast greens. Instead, he’s a major champion. He might become a global icon, and he might win a hell of a lot more golf tournaments if he plays like this more often. Time for sake, at last.