Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 11, 2021

Matsuyama Is Masterful At Augusta National

Augusta National giveth, and Augusta National taketh away.  Perhaps some golf fans had forgotten that, given everything that has happened in major championship play over the past year.  With the pandemic raging, CBS had no lingering shots of azaleas in full flower last April.  Last year’s Open Championship was cancelled, and the U.S. Open was moved from June to September.  The PGA Championship, originally scheduled for May, became the first major of the year when it was finally contested, without fans, at San Francisco’s Harding Park in early August.  When golfers finally made their way to eastern Georgia for the 2020 Masters it was mid-November, the usual riot of color around the course replaced by falling leaves, and Augusta National played very differently than it typically does each spring.  The greens were soft and inviting, and Dustin Johnson took full advantage, setting a tournament record with a final total of 20-under par, five shots better than his closest competitor.

Finally, with vaccination numbers climbing, the expectation is that this year will see a return to the familiar rotation and schedule of golf’s biggest events, for both men and women.  A week ago, the ANA Inspiration kicked off the LPGA’s major calendar, and this weekend CBS Sports, the Golf Channel, and a variety of streaming options were all showing fans the verdant fairways, blindingly white bunkers, and flowering background that for weekend golfers in many parts of the country is the surest sign that winter is over and another season on the links is finally at hand.

As if on cue, the course that Alistair McKenzie laid out over the rolling hills of the nearly 400-acre property that was once a nursery stepped into its familiar role of being generous one moment and punishing the next.  In Thursday’s opening round, Justin Rose, winner of the 2013 U.S. Open and a two-time runner-up at the Masters, was off to an indifferent start with two bogeys in his first seven holes.  Then he split the fairway with his drive on the par-5 8th, slung a fairway metal up the hill that bounced off the mounds to the left of the green and settled ten feet below the cup.  From there Rose sank the putt for eagle and was off to the races.  He made seven birdies in the next nine holes and posted a 65 that was the best score of the day by four shots. 

But not every player in the field was so fortunate.  On the same hole Bryson DeChambeau sent his drive sailing into the trees, well right of the broad fairway.  By the time DeChambeau’s ball found the bottom of the cup, he had a bogey-6.  Nor was that the first blemish in an opening round that would eventually require 76 strokes.  DeChambeau improved in round two, but went 75-75 on the weekend to finish the Masters at 5-over par, in a tie for 46th place.   Although that perhaps overstates the performance of golf’s self-appointed change agent.  DeChambeau has boasted that with his prodigious length off the tee, his par at Augusta National is 67, not the 72 on the course’s scorecard.  By his own standard DeChambeau was 25-over par for the tournament.  Not a good week for the four-protein-shakes-a-day training regimen.

Still, the old saw is that the Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday, and once again Augusta National made sure there was enough truth in that to keep the cliché alive.  By the start of the final round, early leader Rose was one of four players at 7-under, along with Xander Schauffele, Marc Leishman, and Will Zalatoris.  They were all chasing Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, who had charged up the leader board late on Saturday, after a one-hour rain delay, to lead by four shots. 

The momentum and mood swings began early.  When Matsuyama bogeyed the opening hole, and two groups ahead 24-year-old Zalatoris, playing in his first Masters and just his third major, began with back-to-back birdies, the lead was suddenly down to one.  But Matsuyama steadied himself, and by the time he and Schauffele walked from the 9th green to the 10th tee, he was 2-under on the day, 13-under for the tournament, and five clear of the field.  All that remained for Matsuyama to become the first Japanese male to win a major was Augusta National’s back nine, golf’s scenic stroll filled with opportunity and malice.

Having run into trouble early, Schauffele appeared to have become a bystander, sitting seven shots adrift of his fellow competitor.  But on the 12th Matsuyama sent his tee shot into the back bunker, and couldn’t get up and down to save par, while Schauffele rolled in a lengthy putt for birdie.  Then, after both saved a shot on #13, Schauffele stuck his approach next to the hole on the par-4 14th, his third consecutive birdie moving him another stroke closer to Matsuyama.  On the very next hole, after both found the fairway on the reachable par-5, the leader blew his second over the green.  The ball bounded down the slope behind the putting surface and disappeared into the pond that fronts the 16th hole.  Matsuyama did well to save a bogey, and when Schauffele recorded yet another birdie the margin was down to just two shots.  Having carried not just the lead but the weight of an entire country hoping for a major winner on his shoulders since the opening tee shot, one had to wonder if Matsuyama might be wilting.

Instead, it was the pursuer who was bitten by Augusta National.  Schauffele’s tee shot on the par-3 16th was left of his intended line.  It landed on the green, but the ball’s first bounce took it into the fringe and there was nothing to stop it until it found the water.  When his third from the drop area sailed over the green, Schauffele was well into the process of undoing all his recent progress in a single hole with a triple-bogey.  It was the first ever such tally at a major for the talented American who in fifteen such events now has two seconds, two thirds, and eight total top-ten finishes, but still no wins.

For Matsuyama, the task after #16 was to negotiate the final two holes in no worse than 1-over par to stay ahead of Zalatoris, who was in the clubhouse at 9-under.  He did that – exactly – and after his final putt dropped and the pandemic-limited crowd around the final green rose as one to cheer his victory, Matsuyama’s eyes glistened as he made the walk to Augusta National’s clubhouse to sign his scorecard.  Perhaps what viewers saw were tears of joy, or of awe at what he had accomplished for an entire nation.  Or maybe the newest Masters champion was just feeling the relief that any golfer who earns a green jacket must after surviving Augusta National.

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