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Take a bow, Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama

Hideki Matsuyama wins 2021 Masters
That smile will translate in any language as Japan's Hideki Matsuyama celebrates winning the Masters on Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club.

Japan finally crowns its 1st men’s major winner as Matsuyama holds on to win green jacket and fulfill big expectations

Shota Hayafuji carefully walked across Augusta National Golf Club’s final green in the bright evening light Sunday, treading gently on what he clearly considered to be sacred ground.

He carried the 18th-hole flagstick in one hand. In the other, he gripped the yellow 18th-hole flag, which he already had removed and claimed as his rightful trophy as caddie of the newest Masters champion. That hand also held his official green Masters caddie cap. Then, the hat-less Hayafuji replaced the flag-less yellow stick in the cup, paused as he faced the 18th fairway, and courteously bowed.

It was a moment of respect and honor. The Japanese culture is known for both.

After play concluded, it is time to offer both of those things to Hideki Matsuyama, too. He is Hayafuji’s player and the first Japanese male golfer to win a major championship. Matsuyama made history in his homeland Sunday, and better still, he made Japan proud (scores).

American golf fans and media often underrate foreign golfers and tend to dismiss all victories won someplace other than on the PGA Tour as somehow being less important, as if the PGA Tour is the only tour that exists in the world. Seeing Matsuyama slip into the green jacket in Butler Cabin ought to change that America-first mindset … but it probably won’t.

Still, the trail of bread crumbs that the 29-year-old Matsuyama left during the last decade should have identified him as a future major winner. Looking back, it is easy to see the signs. He won eight times in Japan and five times on the PGA Tour: the Memorial Tournament, back-to-back wins at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and a pair of World Golf Championships. He won one WGC event, the HSBC Champions in China, by seven shots. He won another, the Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio, by five strokes and posted a blistering final-round 61 at Firestone.

Matsuyama has hunted in major-championship territory before. He has top-10 finishes in all four majors, plus two in the Players Championship, and his runner-up finish in the 2017 U.S. Open bumped him up to No. 2 in the world ranking. His resume was impressive and lacking only one thing.

And now it’s not.

Hideki Matsuyama and caddie Shota Hayafuji at 2021 Masters
Japan's Hideki Matsuyama walks to the 18th green with caddie Shota Hayafuji during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday.

If you watched the weekend’s play in Augusta, Ga., you know what you saw. Matsuyama played far superior to any other Masters contender over the last two days, especially his iron play. He came close to winning this Masters on Saturday when play resumed after a storm delay. He didn’t miss a shot on the final eight holes, except for a three-putt when he, like most everyone, didn’t realize how much slower the greens had become after the rains. He busted open a four-shot lead over four other players.

Related: Morning Read's complete coverage of the 2021 Masters

Matsuyama’s iron play was masterful. While others battled the changing pace of the greens, he barely noticed because he kept hitting it so close and making birdies.

When a 22-year-old Matsuyama won the Memorial Tournament, beating Kevin Na in a playoff, tournament host Jack Nicklaus said, “I think you’ve just seen the start of what’s going to truly be one of your world’s great players over the next 10 to 15 years.”

Nicklaus always speaks graciously about the winners at his event, but he sounded as if he meant it. Seven years later, it appears as if, yes, Jack does know jack.

“His iron play is ridiculous,” said Australian Cameron Smith, who tied for second in last November’s Masters. “Every time I play with him, he hits his irons nice and close every time. I played with him in the last round of the Asian Amateur, the one he won over in Singapore [in 2011], and he just flushed it all day. We couldn’t catch him.”

Hideki Matsuyama wins 2021 Masters
Hideki Matsuyama shows the form that makes him a major champion.

Sunday, Matsuyama kept hitting greens and making brilliant pitches when needed while his pursuers charged to the rear, for the most part.

Here’s how those top four contenders broke out of the gates: England’s Justin Rose struggled with four bogeys and shot 38 on the front nine; Australia’s Marc Leishman had three bogeys and also posted 38; Canada’s Corey Conners shot 40; and Xander Schauffele had a bogey-bogey-double bogey stretch and posted a 37.

Jordan Spieth, who began the last round six strokes back, had three bogeys on the front and shot 37. When Matsuyama made the turn, he was running so unopposed, it looked like a Russian election.

A devil’s advocate might say he didn’t have the World Golf Hall of Fame chasing him. Defending champ Dustin Johnson, No. 1 in the world, missed the cut. Justin Thomas, the Players champion and No. 2 in the world, went down the drain Saturday with a triple bogey at the 13th hole. Jon Rahm, No. 3, showed up just days after the birth of his first child, and though he rallied with a nice 66 in the final round, he was 11 shots back when he started.

Collin Morikawa, your PGA champ? Not a factor. Bryson DeChambeau, golf’s main attraction, once again was thoroughly bamboozled by Augusta National and the fact that it’s loaded with trees. Bamboozled? That’s thesaurus talk for getting your butt kicked. Patrick Reed, Tyrrell Hatton, Webb Simpson? Nope. Patrick Cantlay? Missed the cut. Schauffele, No. 5 in the world, and Will Zalatoris, recently of the Korn Ferry Tour, were the only players who put up a fight on this glorious Sunday.

No player since Craig Stadler, in 1982, won a Masters with a triple bogey on the card, and Matsuyama extended that streak. Spieth tripled the ninth hole on Thursday; Thomas tripled the 13th hole Saturday; and Schauffele brought a four-birdies-in-a-row streak to a screeching halt when he bounced – bounced! – an 8-iron shot into the pond at the par-3 16th hole Sunday.

The question isn’t how Matsuyama was able to win a Masters; it’s why didn’t he do it sooner, and why was he ranked only No. 25 in the world? This man is a premier iron-striker, a pretty good driver and owns a short game that is immaculate – or was last week, anyway. Matsuyama ranked second in Masters scrambling stats and seventh in greens hit in regulation.

Former Masters champ Adam Scott of Australia played with Matsuyama in the Presidents Cup, and when Scott finished his round Sunday, he was bombarded with Matsuyama questions as media members looked for a way to overcome the language barrier with the winner.

“Well, he’s obviously developed a lot,” Scott said. “He’s done some nice work on his game. He looks very fluid. He looks like he’s worked on his swing, and certainly his putting. He has a desire to do well. He wasn’t afraid to ask questions, and I think that shows. I think he’s quite an intense character, actually – I mean obsessive about his game – even though we don’t really see that.”

Maybe it was part of being 29 and being in a foreign country where he doesn’t speak the language during a rain delay, but Matsuyama spent the 75-minute storm suspension Saturday in his car, playing video games on his cellphone.

The language barrier might mean fewer distractions for him on and off the golf course. Another thing that could have helped Sunday was the limited patron attendance. There is no pressure like having a Masters lead, especially a four-shot lead, and hearing roars from around the course and feeling as if everyone else is lighting up the course. There were roars on the weekend but nothing like the pre-virus days.

Thank goodness Matsuyama didn’t play flawlessly Sunday or there might have been no drama at all. There was precious little the way it was. When Matsuyama stiffed another iron shot for birdie at the ninth, he was at 13 under par, held a five-shot lead, and the Masters appeared to be almost over.

When Zalatoris bogeyed the 12th, Matsuyama’s lead grew to six shots. Then, all he had to do was not hit one in the water. Playing cautiously cost him a bogey at Amen Corner. He found the back bunker, carefully splashed out almost to the fringe, then two-putted for bogey.

Matsuyama got that stroke back at the 13th with a brilliant pitch from near the azaleas left of the green. It might have been one of his best shots of the week, although that category has more nominees than the Grammys.

Meanwhile, Schauffele suddenly got hot and birdied 12, 13 and 14. There still was no problem for Matsuyama, as long as he stayed dry. However, he smashed such a good drive at 15 that he couldn’t help but go for the green in two with an iron. He hit a low shot that landed over the green on a downslope and catapulted into the water by the 16th tee.

Schauffele nearly holed his bump-and-run 50-foot bunker shot for eagle, and was assured of a fourth straight birdie. Matsuyama took his penalty drop, smartly pitched just short of the back of the green and two-putted for a bogey.

Suddenly, it was game on. Matsuyama was up by two over Schauffele with three to play, and up by three over Zalatoris, who birdied the 17th hole up ahead.

What happened next was that Schauffele misjudged the wind and watched his 8-iron shot come up short of the left bunker and bounce into the pond. It got ugly from there, and he made a triple-bogey 6.

“I was feeling good. Hideki surprisingly went for the green at 15 and gave me a little bit of hope,” Schauffele said. “I got hyper-aggressive and flushed an 8-iron shot. It was not downwind. I gave him a little bit of a run. That’s going to go in the memory bank.”

After a par at 17, Matsuyama needed only a bogey at 18 to win. He split the fairway, then dumped his easy wedge shot into the left bunker. What? No problem. Matsuyama splashed a shot onto the green to 6 feet, missed the first one and when a few small gasps were heard, flashed a tiny smile and tapped in a 6-incher for the win.

He got a hug from Schauffele, a fist-bump from Schauffele’s caddie and a hug from his own man, Hayafuji. Matsuyama then made the long walk from the 18th green past the ninth green and the first fairway to the scoring area, hugging a few friends along the way and exchanging fist-bumps and handshakes with well-wishing fans. His face was flushed, and he had tears in his eyes as he moved past. Matsuyama won something wonderful on a fateful afternoon.

Respect.

Read more of Morning Read's final-round coverage:

Take a bow, Hideki Matsuyama, by Gary Van Sickle
Masters offers clues for upcoming majors in 2021, by Alex Miceli
Jon Rahm rallies for another Masters top-10, by Steve Harmon
Billy Horschel takes second tumble at Augusta's 13 hole, by Steve Harmon
One surprising stat from Matsuyama's victory
See Sunday at Augusta like never before in these photos

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