How Hideki Matsuyama Earned a Second Standing Ovation at Augusta Last Year
The celebration of the Masters' first Japanese champion did not end in 2021. It got even better last year, according to a longtime pro.
The winner of the Masters always gets a standing ovation from the gallery when they put in their final putt, receive their trophy and try on the iconic green jacket. But most of the crowd at the Augusta National Golf Club is already standing before they begin their applause for the newest Masters title holder. So what was probably the second standing ovation Hideki Matsuyama ever received on the grounds may have been in some ways even more special than the first when, in 2021, he took home the championship to his native Japan.
Last year he got a room full of his professional golf peers to get up out of their dinner table chairs and cheer him on.
On the Tuesday evening before the Masters tees off at Augusta each year, the defending champion hosts a dinner in the Augusta clubhouse attended by tournament participants and past winners. The Masters Champions Dinner is now a 71-year tradition, but over the previous 31 Matsuyama is responsible for the “coolest thing” to happen at one of them, according to 1993 dinner host Fred Couples.
“It’s becoming a very entertaining and fun night,” Couples told Golf.com about the Champions Dinner at Augusta this week. “Hideki Matsuyama last year gave a speech in English and got a standing ovation. That was probably the coolest thing I’ve seen in the 31 years I’ve gone.”
Matsuyama, who became the first-ever Japanese Masters winner in 2021, spoke through an interpreter during his post-tournament press conference two years ago, as he knows very little English. But he wanted to address his fellow golfers directly in the language they mostly use at the Masters Champions Dinner last year, over plates of assorted sushi, Miyazaki wagyu and other Japanese fare. (As part of the tradition, the host chooses the menu.) Though the details of the speech are somewhat scant, it must have been a stirring one.
“[He] [d]oesn’t speak very much English, and he did not look at a note,” said Jack Nicklaus in the Golf.com piece. “He had figured out what he wanted to say. I’m sure he had some help getting it on paper and then memorized it or whatever. But he was terrific.”
Reportedly, Matsuyama showed some emotion, too, something he didn’t have trouble with at the tournament in 2021. His eyes welled up, understandably, at multiple points in the proceedings after sinking his final putt.
“He didn’t miss a word,” added Tom Watson about last year’s dinner speech, also saying that Matsuyama appeared nervous. “After the speech was over, he goes, ‘Whew’…Simultaneously everybody got up to give him a standing ovation, a standing O, because we really appreciated the effort that he put in to go through minutes in English when he had a hard time doing it.”
It’s touching to hear about golfers embracing a member of a minority community in such a way at that storied clubhouse, which no Black players walked through until 1975. Presciently, at the start of the 2021 tournament, which would eventually crown not just its first Japanese-born champion, but the first from all of Asia, the Masters honored Lee Elder, the Black golfer who broke the color barrier 46 years earlier. He “was recognized for his courage and efforts as a trailblazer, joining Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player for the event’s opening tee shots,” wrote Golf Digest. That ceremony was sullied, however, when a number of people noticed Player’s son and caddie, Wayne Player, holding up a box of golf balls manufactured by a company in which he owns a stake. Many believed he was doing so as a guerrilla-marketing tactic.
The atmosphere at the Matsuyama-hosted dinner last year was almost certainly better than the one in 1998. That year’s defending champion, 22-year-old Tiger Woods, had to choose his dinner menu after former Masters winner Fuzzy Zoeller said in ’97 that he anticipated Woods would offer fried chicken and collard greens, a remark rooted in racist stereotypes.
Zoeller also called Woods, who is part Black (though he also claims Asian heritage), “little boy,” another phrase with a racially charged history.
Though nine days later Zoeller apologized — one of those half-hearted ones where he said he was only joking and was only sorry to those who may have been offended — he still lost endorsement deals with Kmart and Dunlop. Woods later said he’d hashed things out with Zoeller over lunch, but he’s since dealt with racial remarks made by fellow pro Sergio Garcia and his own former caddie, Steve Williams.
Fortunately, PGA Tour pros haven’t had anything degrading to say about Matsuyama or his menu choices. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to praise them.
“I think the food was probably the best we ever had,” said Nicklaus, who’s hosted six Masters Champions Dinners himself.
If only Augusta would take a harder stance against the voting laws in its home state of Georgia that restrict ballot access to Black voters. With all due respect to Matsuyama’s triumph, on the golf course and in the clubhouse, that would be an even better, more impactful ending to the checkered history of racism at the course.
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