MASTERS: Matsuyama wins green jacket, Canuck Conners ties for eighth

Hideki Matsuyama might carry the weight of a nation on his shoulders, but he’ll be doing it in a green jacket from now on.

On Sunday at Augusta National, the 29-year-old Japanese star won the Masters becoming the golf-crazed country’s first men’s major champion.

Matsuyama began the final round with a four-stroke advantage and shot a one-over-par 73 to win by a single stroke over 24-year-old Will Zalatoris at 10-under par.

“I’m really happy,” Matsuyama said in Butler Cabin before accepting the green jacket from Dustin Johnson. “Hopefully I will be a pioneer in this and hopefully many Japanese will follow.”

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For most of the afternoon Matsuyama appeared to be on a stroll toward certain victory, especially after making it through the adventurous Amen Corner with a five-shot lead.

But winning your first major is rarely simple.

“My nerves really didn’t start on the second nine, it was right from the start today,” Matsuyama said. “Right to the very last putt.”

On the par-5 15th hole, already two-under for the day and four strokes ahead, Matsuyama brazenly — or perhaps unwisely — went for the green from 236 yards with his second shot, a green protected front and back by water. The shot came off his four-iron too hot, skipping over the green and into the water, leading to a bogey six.

The back-nine excitement at Augusta that seemed to be taking a Sunday afternoon off had finally arrived, as American Xander Schauffele — playing in the final group with Matsuyama — was charging hard.

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“I’m surprised he went for the green,” Schauffele said. “It doesn’t matter whatsoever right now, but he definitely made it interesting.”

With a birdie streak that began at the famous par-3 12th hole, Schauffele made the most of the leader’s mistake, getting up-and-down from the greenside bunker at the 15th for his fourth birdie in a row and trimming Matsuyama’s lead to just two.

One shot later, the Sunday drama sunk.

On the very next hole, Schauffele misjudged the famously tricky Augusta winds and he found water on the 184-yard par-3 16th making a triple bogey six.

“I made a mistake on shot selection and wind,” Schauffele said. “It is what it is and I think I just need to hit a different shot in there. I hit a perfect 8-iron.”

Schauffele’s charge was over, and his final round even-par 72 found him tied for third at seven-under with Jordan Spieth (70).

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By Sunday’s end, Matsuyama had used up all but one stroke of his five-stroke cushion, tapping in for bogey at the 72nd hole to win by a single shot. It was early morning in Japan when Matsuyama’s final putt rolled in, and a golf-loving country has its newest hero.

“I was thinking about them all the way around today and I’m really happy I played well for them,” the champion said.

Adam Scott has spent some time in Japan and said he can only imagine the reception Matsuyama will get at home this summer when Tokyo hosts the summer Olympics.

“He’s a bit like a Tiger Woods to the rest of the world, Hideki in Japan,” Scott said. “The crowds in Japan are fanatical is the best way I can describe them. It makes for an incredibly fun energy to play golf in front of. They love the game, and they love the superstars … I remember I took the green jacket over there in ’13 when I went, and it was an incredible response I got, so I can only imagine what Hideki will experience.”

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For much of the week the story was the return of a fast and fiery Augusta National. Five months after Johnson set a Masters scoring record at 20-under par in November, players returned to find a less welcoming golf course. Thursday’s opening round saw the most demanding conditions of the week, with bright sunshine further drying out already firm greens. There was no easing into the season’s first major as slight mistakes were punished as players who arrived with less than their best quickly found out. Players not making it to the weekend included several pre-tournament favourites such as world No. 1 Johnson, the out-of-sorts Rory McIlroy, an injured Brooks Koepka, Patrick Cantlay, Daniel Berger and Lee Westwood.

While Augusta National looked and played much more like a usual Masters this week, it was still missing its famous soundtrack. The tournament welcomed back a limited number of fans but roars will have to wait another year.

New dad Jon Rahm had the round of the day on Sunday, shooting a six-under 66 to vault into a tie for fourth with Marc Leishman at six-under. After arriving late and playing just nine holes of practice before the tournament, the Spaniard ran his streak of consecutive rounds of even par or better at Augusta to 15.

“It’s still a top five at a major with a great round on a Sunday,” Rahm said. “Clearly I like the place, I play good here. My year is coming up.”

First-round leader Justin Rose (74) finished solo seventh at five-under one shot ahead of Canadian Corey Conners (74) and Patrick Reed (69) who tied for eighth at four-under. Rounding out the top-10 were Cam Smith and Tony Finau at three-under.

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Canadian Corey Conners plays a shot on the first hole during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 11, 2021 in Augusta, Ga. JARED C. TILTON/GETTY IMAGES

Canada’s quest for its second green jacket will have to wait at least a year, and Corey Conners will be there to try again.

Conners began Sunday in sixth place at six-under par, with a legitimate chance to become Canada’s second Masters champion. Before Sunday’s round, 2003 champion Mike Weir had a conversation with Conners and watched as the Listowel, Ont. native warmed up.

It wasn’t to be for Conners, though, his normally deadly accurate game off the tee disappeared during a rough four-hole stretch on his front nine on Sunday. His drive at the par-4 fifth hole found the pine straw right of the fairway and led to his first bogey of the day. After making an ace at the par-3 sixth hole on Saturday, Conners’ tee shot in the final round sailed through the green and led to another bogey. Drives at the seventh and eighth also missed right and led to more squares on the scorecard. In all, Conners made three bogeys and a double bogey over the stretch and fell to two-under par, well off the lead.

Canada’s top-ranked player battled back with birdies at the 14th and the final hole to finish the day with a two-over 74 and get into tie for eighth, earning a spot in next year’s Masters. It’s Conners second top-10 Masters finish in a row.

Fellow Canadian Mackenzie Hughes shot a four-over 76 after three straight even par rounds to finish tied for 40th. Weir missed the cut.

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