Tour Confidential: Matsuyama’s breakthrough, Zalatoris’ rise and video review
Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we discuss Hideki Matsuyama’s breakthrough victory at the Masters, Will Zalatoris’ ascent, Abraham Ancer’s video-review penalty and more.
1. Hideki Matsuyama, long considered one of the most talented players never to win a major, now has his first. The 29-year-old from Japan, who entered the week with five career PGA Tour wins, closed with a one-over 73 to get to 10 under overall and beat Will Zalatoris by one. What did Matsuyama do better or differently this week that he had been unable to do in his previous major starts?
Zephyr Melton, assistant editor (@zephyrmelton): Many will point to Matsuyama’s precision with his irons, particularly during his back-nine surge on Saturday, as the reason for his win. And while that run was no doubt impressive, his scrambling ability is what stands out most to me this week. Each time he got himself into a bit of trouble, he minimized the damage. Not to mention that all-world up and down he had behind 18 green Saturday evening. Those are the kinds of shots that win you golf tournaments.
Jessica Marksbury, multimedia editor (@Jess_Marksbury): Yes, Z. I thought about that Saturday up-and-down on 18 a lot today. That was unreal. I also can’t help but think about the candid response Hideki gave when he was asked about the scaled-down media contingent following him this week. “I’m glad the media are here covering it, but it’s not my favorite thing to do, to stand and answer questions,” he said. “And so with fewer media, it’s been a lot less stressful for me.” For such a reportedly private and reserved person, maybe the additional breathing room was just what he needed.
Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): That’s a good point, Jess. Along with the sharpened short game, he just seemed to be in a good head space all week. And his calm on Sunday was impressive. After that wild opening tee shot, it would have been easy to come unraveled. But he was right back in rhythm almost straight away, nearly saving par and then striping one on the next tee.
Nick Piastowski, senior editor (@nickpia): The ability to not turn one mistake into 10. After his air-mailed shot into 15 rolled into the water behind the green, he didn’t air-mail another, which would have possibly put him in the water that fronts the green. Instead, he took a safer route, which got him just short of the green, and he made his bogey. Then after seeing Schauffele hit into the water on 16, he took the safe play and hit into the center of the green (though he’d then three-putt). I totally would have lost it at that point. Hideki won it.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer: He was playing with a lead all day. No Hall of Famers at the peak of their powers were breathing down his neck.
2. Along with becoming the first Japanese man to win a major golf tournament, Matsuyama’s now become the first Asian-born player to win a Masters. Much has been said and written about the pressure he faces from Japanese media and the quest to become the first male major winner from Japan. How much do you suppose that burden has weighed on him?
Melton: Not enough to impact the outcome. I’ll save the emotional speculation to those with a bit more expertise in this department than me.
Marksbury: I can’t imagine what shouldering the weight of a country’s hope and expectation feels like. It’s surely not easy. But has that kept him from really achieving until now? I don’t think so. He’s won on Tour five times before this week. Majors are just plain hard to win, for anyone.
Sens: It’s an easy story to spread in print or from the broadcast tower, but best to let Matsuyama himself tell it. One thing I’ll hazard a guess on, though. When he knocked one in the drink on 15 and had to scramble just for bogey, at that moment, under that intense pressure, I doubt he was thinking, ‘Oh, man, the things they must be saying about me right now back home?’
Piastowski: I imagine it’s difficult, no doubt. I barely can hit a golf shot when no one cares, let alone an entire country. I’ll add, too, that a breakthrough win like this, one that lifts that pressure, could lead to more. Quickly.
Bamberger: Hugely. Witness his rain-delay break in his car, on his phone, playing video games.
3. Matsuyama didn’t have many contenders breathing down his neck on Sunday, although Will Zalatoris made a run early and then forced Matsuyama to limit mistakes down the stretch. The 24-year-old has dazzled on the Korn Ferry Tour and even took T6 in the U.S. Open. What did you learn watching Zalatoris’s spirited play this week?
Melton: That the dude is a baller. Also, this is yet another example of a young kid coming out on Tour and showing no fear. With the amount of high-level events juniors and ams play these days (not to mention cutting their teeth on the KFT and other development tours), by the time they reach the biggest stage, they are ready to perform. I think these kinds of performances will become more and more common from relative unknowns as time goes on.
Marksbury: It was such a pleasure to watch a fresh, young player who seemed to be truly enjoying himself at Augusta National. He relished the challenge and refused to outwardly expect too much but was clearly thrilled by his success. Plus, he’s just so likeable! Like Zephyr, I’m continually impressed by the crop of young talent we seem to be seeing more of, year after year. Morikawa, Wolff, Hovland — and now Zalatoris, too.
Sens: The fearlessness and confidence of youth. I mean, showing up on a huge stage with that putting grip when you’re still in your 20s? That takes chutzpah. I kid. He can clearly handle the moment, a weapon that not every player has in their arsenal.
Piastowski: That he’s going to win the Masters one day. Possibly more than once. He hits it high and handles the pressure, two ingredients for success at Augusta. Love the personality, too — I’ve laughed every time I’ve watched this.
Bamberger: Great driver of the ball from what I could see. Better with the irons. As a putter, he’s not Tiger, he’s not Corey Pavin, he’s not Brandt Snedeker. But he’ll have his putting weeks. They all do.
4. In an unusual rules kerfuffle, Abraham Ancer was penalized two strokes following his first round after a video review showed he unknowingly touched sand before making his stroke from a bunker on the 15th hole. “The touching of the sand was deemed visible to the naked eye,” ANGC’s statement read. “Had this not been the case, the video evidence would have been disregarded and a penalty would not have been applied.” OK with the penalty doled out by tournament officials?
Melton: It seemed a little weak to me. The rules of golf are black and white, but leaving a little room for nuance would be nice. The “infraction” wasn’t intentional, and it didn’t give Ancer any competitive advantage, so why make a fuss of it? These are the kinds of nitpicky things that can turn the casual fan off to the game.
Marksbury: I’ve watched the video several times, and I still don’t understand how a few grains of sand directly behind the clubhead can be deemed visible to the naked eye. Yes, we viewers can clearly see that a bit of sand was touched. But from his vantage over the ball, could Abraham? That seems highly doubtful to me.
Sens: Agreed. This was nothing like Patrick Reed’s dubious dealings in the sand at Tiger’s event. I’m not so much worried about turning off the casual fan with the arcana of the rules (the casual fans I know find that kind of stuff darkly fascinating, if anything). It’s more a matter of fairness to Ancer, who was punished for something that seemed to merit a quiet warning, at most.
Piastowski: Nope. I’m not a fan of this penalty, nor the one where you rest your club behind the ball and the ball then accidentally moves, which happened to Adam Scott this week. The funny part with Ancer is: THE BALL DIDN’T EVEN LEAVE THE TRAP. It hit the lip, and he had to hit again. So he definitely did not get an advantage from it.
Bamberger: No question, at all, he certainly was NOT trying to gain an advantage. I don’t know that it was visible. He definitely should not have had his flange so close to the sand. A better penalty would have been a DQ, such as the one players used to get for signing a wrong scorecard. Nobody would dare get it that close again.
5. Jordan Spieth had four solid rounds but still finished three behind Matsuyama. Xander Schauffele had a triple-bogey 6 on 16 on Sunday and ended up three back. Jon Rahm had three rounds of even par before a blistering 66 on Sunday, leaving him four back. Which player from this week — among these three or others! — is most kicking himself for what could have been?
Melton: It’s got to be Justin Rose, right? After his dazzling opening round, it looked like he had a chance to turn this into an early blowout, but the rest of the week he was just stuck in neutral. Another missed opportunity at Augusta for Rose.
Marksbury: No way should Will Zalatoris kick himself after the way he played at Augusta this week, but he was the only one putting meaningful pressure on Hideki at the start, posting three birdies on the front. And if you think about Will’s three-putt on 10, his missed shortish opportunity for an up-and-down par on 12, and his three-putt for par on the par-5 13th, that’s three shots right there that, in a different world, could potentially have won him a green jacket.
Sens: Xander. He had pulled to within two and had an 8-iron in his hand on the 16th tee. A solid shot there, hitting ahead of Hideki, and things would have really gotten interesting. He said he “flushed” the shot, but that was a big miss at the day’s biggest woulda, coulda, shoulda moment.
Piastowski: I’ll go with Rahm. Though he won’t admit it, I imagine it was pretty tough to deal with the emotions of becoming a new dad while playing a major. Not to mention that he played just one practice round at Augusta after arriving later in the week. I think it took him a while to get going, and that showed on Sunday.
Bamberger: Let us not forget Justin Thomas. But Xander, for sure. He’s playing with Hideki. If he stiffs it on 16, it’s nothing but tension the rest of the way.
6. Lastly, an easy one. What’s your biggest takeaway from the 2021 Masters?
Melton: Augusta National can still breathe fire under the right conditions. More of that, please. Also, having fans (patrons) back at the Masters was awesome.
Marksbury: It ain’t over til it’s over. Matsuyama’s victory never really seemed in doubt, then all of a sudden, boom! Water ball on 15! A bit of drama! Will Zalatoris played the final four holes in two under, while Matsuyama was three over for the same stretch. A five-shot swing. And after making four straight birdies on 12, 13, 14 and 15, Xander Schauffele made a shocking triple-bogey on 16. The lesson: Augusta’s back nine never, ever disappoints.
Sens: That firm and fast is always more entertaining than wet and soft. Also, no matter how many times we tell ourselves that anything can happen coming down the stretch, it’s always something of a gut-churning surprise when it does.
Piastowski: It was great to have the Masters back in April. Spring is here. But could we maybe have a Masters every five months going forward now? This has been kinda fun, right?
Bamberger: Golf tournaments need fans.