Hideki Matsuyama is the first Japanese player to win the Masters

The Japanese hometown hero held off challengers’ late comeback attempts and brings home Japan’s first green jacket

Today's expression: Let loose
May 3, 2021:

In an exciting final day of competition, Hideki Matsuyama held off last-minute comeback attempts from two challengers to win the 85th Masters golf tournament. His win made him the first Japanese player to win a major golf tournament. Plus, the backstory on why Matsuyama is a Japanese hometown hero, and learn what it means to “let loose.”

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A golf-crazy nation gets its first green jacket

Lesson summary

Hi there, I’m Jeff; JR is the producer; and you are listening to Plain English lesson number 360. The full lesson is available at PlainEnglish.com/360.

Coming up today: Hideki Matsuyama became the first Japanese player to win a major men’s PGA golf tournament—right before his country hosts the Olympics. He won the 2021 Master’s Tournament, the most prestigious major tournament in golf, narrowly surviving last-minute comeback attempts from two challengers. The expression is “let loose” and we have a quote of the week.

Before we start, a little golf vocabulary for you. In golf, a low score wins: you want to get the ball in the hole in as few shots as you can. Each hole on the course is rated with a “par” score, which is what a typical player would be expected to shoot; these range from three to five. If you finish a par-five hole in four shots, you’re one stroke below par. If you finish it in six, you’re one stroke over par.

Over the course of a whole day, or a whole tournament, your score is measured by how far above or below par your total score is. On a hole where your score is the same as par, you’re said to “make par” on that hole. If you score one below, you get a birdie; in the rare case you’re two below, you make an eagle. If you’re one over, you bogey the hole.

Hideki Matsuyama’s Master’s win

Professional golf is organized in different tours; the biggest is called the PGA—Professional Golfers’ Association, popular in North America. Golfers from any country can play on the PGA tour: though the majority are Americans, the PGA features players from around the world.

Like tennis, golf has a large number of tournaments year-round, and in many parts of the globe. Not every player enters every tournament. Four championships on the annual calendar are considered “major” championships: three in the US and one in Britain. Among them all, the Master’s tournament is considered the most prestigious.

The Master’s is played each year at Augusta National Golf Club, an 88-year old golf course and club in the southeastern state of Georgia. The course is considered one of the most beautiful in American golf; when the tournament is played in April, over 30 varieties of azalea flowers are in full bloom in pink, white, and purple.

Like all majors, the Master’s is a four-day tournament; each day is 18 holes of golf. The top seventy players after Thursday and Friday get to play over the weekend; the rest are cut. Winners of the Master’s tournament get a custom-fit green jacket, which they can always wear at Augusta National golf club, and tons of publicity and perks in the golf world. And by the way, they also come home with—this year at least—over $2 million.

Twenty-nine year-old Hideki Matsuyama was no stranger to winning: he had won five PGA tour events and eight events on the Japan Golf Tour. His breakout moment came a decade ago at Augusta National: each year, the Master’s has an amateur tournament for non-professionals: it’s like a showcase of the game’s future stars. The 19-year-old Matsuyama won that amateur tournament—and then returned to his hometown of Sendai, Japan, which had been hit hard by an earthquake and tsunami. He volunteered and helped the town rebuild after the disaster.

Matsuyama went on to have a sparkling career in Asia, becoming a hometown hero for Japan. He’s widely respected for his dedication to helping Sendai rebuild and for being a national symbol of Japanese golf. But he had never won a major event on the PGA Tour, the most prestigious in the world, until this year.

Matsuyama finished Day 1 at the 2021 Master’s tied for second place. At the end of the second day, he had dropped to a tie for sixth. But Saturday was his day to shine: in a dominant performance that featured an eagle and five birdies, he surged to a four-stroke lead. Four players were tied for second. On Sunday morning, the tournament seemed all but over: a four-stroke lead is a big one on this course.

There are two ways for the leader in a golf tournament to change: either the players in second place and below can make up ground by playing well, or the leader can stumble. Both happened on Sunday. Matsuyama stumbled at the beginning and saw his four-shot lead shrink to just one. Just a few holes into the final day, the tournament was competitive again. But Matsuyama surged ahead, opening up a five-shot lead heading into the fourteenth hole out of eighteen.

Then, he started to stumble. Matsuyama bogeyed the fifteenth and sixteenth holes, but his closest competitor, Xander Schauffele, did even worse. A third competitor, 24-year old Will Zalatoris, started to emerge as the new number-two and Matsuyama’s closest competitor down the stretch, earning two birdies in his final four holes. Going into the final two holes, Matsuyama had a two-stroke lead over Zalatoris. That’s a good lead so late in the tournament, but no guarantee.

Zalatoris had already finished his round and was watching from the clubhouse; his only chance was that Matsuyama would falter. Matsuyama survived 17, but missed his putt for par on 18, losing a stroke: his lead, once as high as five, was down to one. With no one else left on the course, Matsuyama needed to sink his final short putt to win the tournament and avoid a runoff.

To the relief of his millions of fans watching early in the morning in Tokyo, Matsuyama’s final putt sank into the hole and Japan had its first major championship in history. Though he flirted with an epic meltdown, Matsuyama never relinquished the lead he took mid-day Saturday. For once , the famously stoic Matsuyama let loose and allowed himself to smile on the 18th green.

He wouldn’t have time to rest. Japanese newspapers featured him on the front page with huge headlines; congratulations poured in from politicians, actors, athletes, and golf fans across Japan. The Japanese prime minister said, “He has given courage and delight to everyone in Japan.” Matsuyama’s victory was being discussed on television news all week. A newspaper published a graphic showing every shot Matsuyama took on his 72-hole championship journey.

It comes at the perfect time. Golf will be played at the Summer Olympics for only the fourth time in history at the delayed 2020 games in Tokyo this summer. Speculation started immediately that Matsuyama would be among the athletes featured in official ceremonies. An analyst on American TV suggested he might light the Olympic flame.

A rollercoaster ride

It was not the victory he imagined going into Sunday. It was more that he survived that last round than won it—but what matters in the end is that he won. I kept an eye on the tournament on Saturday, but I watched on Sunday—this was an exciting tournament.

The American broadcast on CBS aired clips of the Japanese broadcasters riding the highs and lamenting the heartbreaks of the rollercoaster ride. We couldn’t understand the words when we watched those clips, but we didn’t have to. Their voices said enough.

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Expression: Let loose