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Japanese Idol: The Ripples From The Masters

Rex Kuramoto (Photo: Chris Cox, PGA TOUR)

Chris Cox/PGA TOUR

Rex Kuramoto couldn’t sit still. So he did the only thing he could think to do in order to help calm his nerves. 

He grabbed his putter and began to pace.

“I was just so excited,” said the longtime golf commentator and former European Tour player. “I could not sit in a chair and watch the TV. I just walked around my living room for no reason, holding my putter and doing nothing but praying.”

Praying, of course, for history. 

History decades in the making for Kuramoto and his fellow Japanese golf brethren, who for years dreamed that one of their own would someday hoist a major men’s championship. So as Hideki Matsuyama closed in on the first Masters victory by an Asian player on a Sunday afternoon at Augusta National, Kuramoto and his peers stood by with baited breath.

Naoyuki Komatsu (Photo: Chris Cox, PGA TOUR)

“I was trying not to blink, just pinching my cheeks and trying to enjoy every moment,” added Naoyuki Komatsu, who calls golf broadcasts alongside Kuramoto for GOLFTV Powered by the PGA TOUR in Japan.

“I’m old enough to think of all those old players who came through Augusta over the years,” he continued. “It felt like all of their challenges in past years, all of their efforts, were all just sitting there, piled up in layers. It really felt like Hideki’s victory was an accumulation of all that.”

It may take years to accurately gauge just what type of impact Matsuyama’s achievement will have on Japan, both from an economic and participation standpoint. But if the immediate reaction back home is any indication, the sport’s brightest days still lie ahead.

Japanese broadcasters sent messages to TVs throughout the country alerting citizens to the victory. Morning shows continued to discuss the triumph days later. And according to Kuramoto, his friends in the Japan offices of Srixon—Matsuyama’s primary equipment provider—came in early to watch the final round, while Matsuyama’s local high school excused students from the classroom to watch the tournament together.

“The Prime Minister, the former Prime Minister, movie stars, athletes, everybody is exulting,” Komatsu said. “They’re telling him, ‘Thank you.’ I guess that’s a Japanese mentality. We’re very grateful of him winning because we hope, we cheer on, we pray. And we know that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on him.

“General sports fans are happy, because we have Naomi Osaka winning Grand Slams in tennis, Shohei Otani pitching and hitting home runs, and now Hideki. We hope he can become the next Ichiro Suzuki, who had such longevity in professional baseball.”

A Nation On The Rise

It should be noted that this is not the first boon for Japanese golf, nor is it likely to be the last.

The country’s first big introduction to the sport came in 1957, when a scrawny, 5-foot-2 golfer named Torakichi Nakamura shocked the world by defeating the legendary Sam Snead before going on to win the Canada Cup (known today as the World Cup) at Kasumigaseki Country Club, now the site of the golf competition for the 2021 Olympic Games.

Nakamura would become the first Japanese player to compete in The Masters the following year, in turn helping pave the way for a generation of future stars, including PGA TOUR winners such as Shigeki Maruyama, Isao Aoki and World Golf Hall of Famer Jumbo Ozaki.

“There are so many more players who had potential, but unfortunately, they hesitated because Japan is so Far East,” Komatsu said. “The Pacific Ocean is so vast. They couldn’t just come to the United States, live here and try it out throughout the year. But now as golf grows globally, the top players have been increasing in Japan.”

Consider it the male version of the “Ai Miyazato Effect,” as Kuramoto likes to call it. Many of the female Japanese stars of today credit Miyazato’s rapid ascension to World No. 1—as well as her first professional win while still in high school—for their own path into professional golf.

And now? The Japanese youth have even more golf idols to admire. 

Hinako Shibuno became the second Japanese player to win a women’s major championship in 2019 at the AIG Women’s British Open, and earlier this month 17-year-old Tsubasa Kajitani won on the very same course as Matsuyama, capturing the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in a playoff over Emilia Migliaccio. 

What comes next from this golf-mad country is anyone’s guess. (Though Komatsu thinks Japan may see an influx of young boys named Hideki, not unlike the Taega name that popped up following Tiger Woods’ 1997 Masters victory.)

“The PGA of Japan has been working very hard to introduce this game to youngsters, and they’ve started their own version of the First Tee system,” Kuramoto said. “As Matsuyama said in Butler Cabin: I hope young kids watching him now will grow up and compete against him one day. 

“We need to tell our young stars how Matsuyama became who he is. It did not happen overnight, but through a lot of dedication.”

To be clear, Matsuyama isn’t one to one to dive into such significant detail on his personal struggles. Or any other aspect of his life, for that matter. He undergoes great pains to avoid the media attention he constantly receives, regardless of the cadre of Japanese reporters who follow him from one tournament stop to the next.

But no words were necessary at The Masters Tournament, where Dustin Johnson slipped the Green Jacket over Matsuyama’s shoulders. Years of reservation melted away in mere seconds, as the 29-year-old raised his hands to the sky in elation.

That moment, above all else, said it all.

“He’s always hid his emotions so well before,” Kuramoto said. “I loved seeing him smiling like a baby in front of everybody on the golf course.”

It was one of two moments that stood out to the GOLFTV Powered by the PGA TOUR commentators, the other being the viral moment of caddie Shota Hayafuji bowing in respect at the 18th green. 

Not only did it capture their own hearts, but those of American golf fans, too. And it came at a critical juncture for the United States, where hate crimes against Asians have been on the rise.

“We’re so glad that people not just in America, but all over the world think it’s cool what we care for, what we cherish and what we value,” Komatsu said. “The Masters is the most ‘American’ tournament of them all. It’s symbolic of America, but we Japanese love The Masters.”

Hayafuji’s bow “reminded us what and how we should be,” Kuramoto added. “I hope the performance by Hideki and his caddie will help lower the wall between different races.”

Consider it just one more achievement for Matsuyama, and for the people of Japan.

“An entire nation has realized how sports can impact our life and our spirits,” Kuramoto said. “This will have nothing but a positive effect on Japanese golf.”

Watch every moment of Hideki Matsuyama in Japan on GOLFTV Powered by the PGA TOUR.

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