Column: A reluctant star heads home with the green jacket

AUGUSTA, Ga. — His were the only pair of hands on the club. Millions of his countrymen will want a piece of Hideki Matsuyama now. Considering how much he values his privacy, it could be quite the interesting tug of war.

Precious few people even knew Matsuyama was married until he and his wife, Mei, welcomed a baby girl in early 2017. His response to the media uproar back home was short and completely in character. “No one,” Matsuyama said, “really asked me.”

That won’t happen again. At the start of Masters week, he was far from the most popular golfer in Japan. Matsuyama knows that’s over, too. If only for the moment, he sounded ready.

“Hopefully, I’ll be a pioneer in this and many other Japanese will follow,” he said. “I’m glad to be able to open the floodgates. hopefully, and many more will follow me.”

The bar will be a lot higher now.

Matsuyama’s one-shot victory and 1-over-73 final round were actually a lot better than they’ll look in the history books. He was more protective than proactive at the end, bogeying three of the last four holes to avoid even bigger numbers. But from the restart of Saturday’s third round — after an hour-plus rain delay — until those closing holes Sunday, Matsuyama was nearly flawless.

He’d spent most of Saturday’s break hiding in his rental car, scrolling through his phone and stewing over his last shot, a wayward drive at No. 11. He gave himself a pep talk, reasoning things couldn’t get worse. And he was right — up to a point.

Matsuyama locked the car door and then promptly mowed down Augusta National’s final eight holes in 6 under, crafting a remarkable 65 and turning a two-shot deficit into a four-shot lead. Then came the hard part, a trip to the interview room.

“I’m not sure how to answer this in a good way,” he began, speaking through his trusted interpreter, Bob Turner. “But being in front of the media is still difficult.”

Turner makes that part of Matsuyama’s job a little easier. They became fast friends nearly a decade ago, when Matsuyama was still in college and testing the waters on this side of the Pacific. Turner, who walked the course Sunday tracking Matsuyama’s progress, knows his friend’s guarded nature and takes pains to respect his wishes.

“I try to interpret his words here,” Turner said, pointing to his heart, “instead of here,” he added, now pointing to his head.

And of course, it could have been worse. Several reporters noted the usually two-dozen-strong Japanese media contingent, like its larger U.S. counterpart, was drastically reduced because of COVID-19 restrictions. But any number above zero was more than Matsuyama would have preferred.

“I’m glad the media are here covering it, but it’s not my favorite thing to do,” he continued, “to stand and answer questions And so with fewer media, it has been a lot less stressful for me, and I’ve enjoyed this week.”

Until Sunday, pride of place back home belonged to 74-year-old Hall of Famer Jumbo Ozaki, a gregarious soul who won more than 100 tournaments yet rarely played outside of Japan. Another pair of old-timers, Isao Aoki and Tommy Nakajima, are still revered and in demand there, too, in no small part because they played most of their golf close to home.

Even Ryo Ishikawa, a 29-year-old who like Matsuyama left home to test himself against the best, held a big edge over his contemporary. Ishikawa won a Japan Golf Tour event as a 15-year-old amateur and has been a rock star on that side of the world ever since.

That, and more, awaits Matsuyama the moment he lands back home. Asked how he expected that to go, he broke into a grin. Matsuyama rarely speaks English in public, but a widening smile made clear he understood the question before Turner sent it his way in Japanese.

“I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like,” Matsuyama replied, “but what a thrill and honor it will be for me to take the Green jacket back to Japan.”