Hideki Matsuyama’s win, while huge for him, feels seismic for representation in golf

Hideki Matsuyama and his team after the green jacket ceremony.

Stephen Denton

AUGUSTA, Ga. — You walk around at the Masters and the sameness is evident. Take a peek inside the clubhouse if you need to. It’s predominantly white Americans strolling the grounds, enjoying the same American cuisine, speaking the same language, wearing the same brand of sunglasses.

There’s no surprise to it — this is Augusta, Georgia, America, after all. But on Sunday, a new visual appeared to the few thousand spectators on site and the millions watching at home: an Asian-born player winning the Masters for the first time, punching the sky with both hands, a green jacket on his back, with a smile that could have reached across the Pacific.

It’s difficult to categorize how significant Hideki Matsuyama’s Masters victory is, can be and will be. We can’t begin to quantify it. Perhaps sometime down the road. But a more subtle, qualitative takeaway from the 85th Masters has to do with a simple concept: representation. The image of a Japanese man doing exactly what he did Sunday, here in this southeastern corner of the United States, and just eight days after a Japanese woman prevailed at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

Stephen Denton

The event Matsuyama won is a golf tournament first but also so many other things: an idea, a ritual, a week’s worth of lessons, year after year. But boil the Masters down and this annual celebration is just a bunch of visuals. And they have no language barrier. The green jacket ceremony and the Butler Cabin interview. Dustin Johnson, the reigning champ, shaking Matsuyama’s hand, and Fred Ridley, Mr. Chairman, dapping up the new man in green. There are prospective visuals of Matsuyama’s title defense next year and his return every year after that, as long as he wants. When Japanese fare is provided to past champions on Tuesday, April 6, 2022, the meal will represent much more than Hideki’s winning 10-under score. Matsuyama will be photographed bringing the green jacket anywhere he wants for the next 358 days. Will it make an appearance at the Olympics this summer in Tokyo? We can only hope.

On Sunday afternoon, I asked Kevin Na, Korean-American and T12 finisher at the Masters, what representation means to him: “Everybody represents something, whether it’s your hometown, your country, or whether it’s race. You represent something.”

He’s right. Matsuyama was the only Japanese player in the field. That’s often the case.

Na knows a thing or two about that life. He was born in Seoul, South Korea, emigrating to the United States as an eight-year-old and is now one of just a handful of Korean-Americans on the PGA Tour. “I’m an American citizen but I still have a lot of respect for where I come from, for my heritage, and you know what, I’m proud to be both,” Na said. “Asian-American, Korean-American, whatever you want to call it, I’m proud to be both.”

Proud to act on it, too. When he wins tournaments, Na answers questions in English first, then in Korean. He knows people are watching. During his practice round Tuesday, Na spoke in Korean to a couple patrons on the 11th tee. “Let’s go, Kev. Go get this thing,” one of them said. Na ripped a driver, said thank you and signed a couple of gloves for them as a gift.

These two Korean-American patrons were attending their first Masters and suddenly one of their kings had delivered a forever memory. Their arms trembled in excitement as they walked up the fairway, giddy, smiling. Their man, up close, at Augusta National, acknowledging them and representing them. They’d soon move on to watch Korean sensation Sungjae Im, a man who might win a green jacket of his own someday.

The visuals of a Japanese Masters champion are only just beginning. Matsuyama’s caddie’s bow on the 18th green — a quick but powerful sign of gratitude and respect — has gone viral since.

“Hopefully I’ll be a pioneer in this and many other Japanese will follow,” Matsuyama said via his interpreter to Jim Nantz in Butler Cabin, another one of those indelible visuals. “I’m glad to be able to open the floodgates hopefully, and many more will follow me.”

Matsuyama won almost exactly like Tiger Woods did just two years ago, with a tap-in bogey on 18 and a one-shot lead. Woods tweeted congratulations Sunday evening, ending with, “This historical Masters win will impact the entire golf world.” 

Well said, Tiger. Representation could be Woods’s middle name. Remember the “I am Tiger Woods” commercials? When Woods triumphed in 2019 one Black locker room attendant decided to skip rank and leave his post. “I’m gonna head out to 18 to see it,” he said, eager for a memory earned with his own eyes, not via some TV screen. “You’re gonna do that and some green jacket is gonna see you on TV,” said one of his white coworkers. “I don’t care,” he responded.

A similar thing happened in 1997 when a Black man won this tournament for the very first time, and all the Black cooks and wait staff assembled on the clubhouse veranda to watch. People seeing themselves in another. In a lanky kid named Tiger back then, or a much huskier 29-year-old named Hideki this week, or, lest we forget, Mr. Lee Elder, now 86, earning all kinds of late recognition this week for his representing an entire race at the 1975 Masters. And in many ways since.

Lee Elder waves to the crowd on the first tee at Augusta National Thursday morning. Getty Images

Representation is crucially important. It’s why the Augusta National Women’s Amateur exists. Women playing this golf course, showing others that they can, too — a course women weren’t allowed as members as recently as a decade ago. Fittingly, 17-year-old Tsubasa Kajitani came back from the pack to win. What a week it’s been.

Shortly after I asked Na for his thoughts on representation, he had to bounce. His wife needed to catch a flight home from the Augusta airport, so he quickly backed away from the microphone, hopped on a golf cart and rushed to drop her off.

Na urged his caddie and driver Kenny Harms to step on it. It’s just a 12-mile drive, but “Kenny was going 100,” Na said. They made it to the 18th green just in time for one more of those visuals we’ll remember for a long, long time: an Asian-born player winning the Masters and being congratulated behind the green by an Asian-American player.

Imagine what the scene must have looked like to someone watching from the other side of the world. 

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

Zak is a writer and host for various GOLF.com video properties and podcasts. Check out his travels on Destination Golf and his latest thoughts on the Drop Zone Podcast:

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