Congrats to all who backed Masters winner Hideki Matsuyama, the first Japanese male to win a Major. As usual, the women got there a long time ago – Chako Higuchi won the LPGA Championship back in 1977 – but this is a big, big deal in golf-crazy Japan.
It’s front-page news and prime-time TV there and Hideki will be making plenty of yen on top of the monster $2m-plus winner’s cheque by the time his reign is over, a longer reign than Dustin Johnson who got only seven months out of his Green Jacket after Covid forced last year’s switch from April to November.
That first Major for Hideki and Japan has been a long time coming. Jumbo Ozaki won 94 tournaments on his own patch but his talents didn’t travel well, Tommy Nakajima had top-tens in all four Majors but is more remembered for taking 13 on the 13th at Augusta and nine at the Road Hole at St Andrews after taking four swipes in the bunker.
Isao Aoki went close when runner-up to Jack Nicklaus in the 1980 US Open; teenage prodigy Ryo Ishikawa “the quiet prince” arrived in the States to a fanfare of trumpets but was found wanting; finally it came down to Matsuyama, himself a US Open runner-up in 2017.
Without a top-ten from ten outings this year, he was not easy to make a case for despite solid performances, including a fifth and a seventh, in the six previous Masters.
A best-priced 45-1, he bossed Augusta from the moment he handed in a best-of-the-week 65 on Saturday and his four-stroke lead proved too much for the chasers, only debutant Will Zalatoris and Xander Schauffele getting anywhere near him.
Matsuyama did his best to blow it by airmailing the 15th green and ending up in the lake behind it, then triple-putting the short 16th but had enough in hand to enjoy the luxury of dropping another stroke at the last.
Schauffele’s four birdies in a row from 12 to 15 briefly threatened to make a race of it but he wiped all that out in 15 minutes of madness on the short 16th. It is not the first time Xander has buckled under pressure.
Matsuyama and Schauffele miss this week’s RBC Heritage at Hilton Head, South Carolina, but runner-up Zalatoris bids to go one better in a strong renewal of a tournament that has been around for 52 years on the 7,099-yard par 71 Harbour Town Links.
The wiry Californian who looks like he could do with a good meal was as cool as a cucumber in the cauldron of Augusta but was it nerves or a dodgy putting stroke/grip which saw him miss a good few chances on those glassy greens?
He is a long way short of my No. 1 choice to hole a six-footer if my life depended on it. Improvement in that area would quickly turn these top-ten finishes into a PGA Tour breakthrough from this star of last year’s Korn Ferry satellite circuit.
Meanwhile, with second in the Masters following sixth in last year’s US Open, he is already proving himself a big-occasion performer. Six top-tens from 15 starts is sensational at this early stage of his main-tour career but the adrenaline may be running low and I’ll swerve him at Hilton Head.
Also passed over are Augusta flops DJ and Patrick Cantlay as picking players who have missed the cut the previous week is not my style.
This Pete Dye course (with assists from Nicklaus) is one of the few on the roster where power is much less important than accuracy. Drives must not only hit the fairway, they need to be on the right part of the fairway to get clear views of some of the greens.
It is no coincidence that many of the past winners have been no more than average hitters. It is a thinking man’s course. Jim Furyk and Stewart Cink won there twice, Graeme McDowell, Brian Gay, Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker, outgunned by the bombers, were in their element at Harbour Town.
Although Cink’s two victories came long ago, in 2000 and 2004, he is enjoying a revival with his son on the bag, winning the
Safeway in September and sharing 12th spot at the Masters. If his 47-year-old legs are up to it, the 2009 Open champion might well defy his three-figure price even though this is a stronger edition of the Heritage than usual.
Of the front-runners in the betting, I like PGA champion Collin Morikawa and defending champion Webb Simpson best. Simpson won with a record-breaking 22-under score when the tournament moved from April to June last year because of Covid.
Morikawa’s four wins, which include a Major and a WGC, from the 42 tournaments he’s played since going pro in 2019 is remarkable. His 18th at Augusta will have put him spot-on for this and Matsuyama’s Masters may fire him up as his father is Japanese.
A poor final round on his Heritage debut last year cost him the good finish he was heading for after three rounds in the 60s and his game looks the right fit for the task at hand.
Simpson and Abraham Ancer, who finished first and second last year, were in a share of 12th at Augusta along with super Scot Robert MacIntyre and must surely be in the mix again. Ancer’s 20-under would have won any other year.
Si Woo Kim broke his putter in frustration and had to hole out with a three-wood for the last four holes of his Friday round at Augusta yet still finished 12th. He had a stranglehold on the 2018 Heritage until a back-nine meltdown which ended with him losing a play-off with Satoshi Kodaira. Winner of the American Express in January, Kim is playing well enough to take his revenge on the Heritage if he doesn’t lose the head.
Tyrrell Hatton, 18th at Augusta, and Sergio Garcia, third and fifth last time, could be the pick of the Europeans while Charley Hoffman, a brilliant runner-up to Jordan Spieth at the Texas Open, may benefit from not qualifying for the Masters as he will be fresh. He is playing some of the best golf of his career.
2pts each-way Sam Horsfield @ 14/1
1pt each-way Matthias Schwab @ 16/1
1pt each-way Rasmus Hojgaard @ 22/1
1pt each-way Kurt Kitayama @ 20/1
1pt each-way Sebastian Garcia Rodriguez @ 66/1
The Austrian Open will not take much winning but a 14/1 winner here puts just as much money in your pocket as a 14/1 winner of a Major and this modest tournament gives someone, whether rookie, serial loser or veteran, an opportunity to open his European Tour account.
Falling into the middle category is favourite Thomas Detry who is 28 now and beaten in every one of his 109 starts, in several of which the sweet-swinging Belgian has spurned clear-cut chances.
The image of him holding his head in his hands after missing the three-foot par putt on the final green at Forest of Arden which let in Sam Horsfield for his first victory in the Hero Open last August lingers in the mind.
Yet here’s Horsfield, a player who knows how to win – he went on to a second victory a couple of weeks later in the Celtic Classic – yet he’s at 14/1 for his debut at the Diamond Country Club at Altenbrugg while Detry is trading at single-figure odds.
It’s not difficult to see where the value lies, particularly as Horsfield has rattled off an eighth and a third in Kenya on a belated return to action following a long rest while a slipped-disc back problem was treated.
The talented Mancunian, who went to college in Florida where he caught the attention of Ian Poulter who sang his praises, is making up for lost time after missing the lucrative Gulf Swing and it will come as a surprise if he fails to add to last year’s haul.
Matthias Schwab and Adri Arnaus, two youngsters in the same boat as Detry in that they keep playing impressively without acquiring that elusive W on their CVs.
After top-tens in Dubai and Kenya, Schwab is on home turf this week and, in the absence of Bernd Wiesberger who had a gruelling week at Augusta where he finished 40th, represents Austria’s only realistic victory hope.
Spaniard Arnaus, with three second places on his record, had three top-12s in much better fields in the Gulf either side of Christmas and must surely break through soon.
Rasmus Hojgaard is the precocious Dane who chalked up victories in Mauritius and at The Belfry while still a teenager. Now 20, he made a fast start to 2021 with top-tens in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. This is his debut in Austria where last year’s long-priced winner, Scot Marc Warren, is not defending.
Hideki Matsuyama’s Masters triumph could inspire Kurt Kitayama whose mother is Japanese. The little American, only 5ft 6in tall but one of the longest hitters on tour, makes his Austrian debut on this 7,458-yard Diamond test. He won twice, in Mauritius and Oman, in his first 11 Euro starts, so clearly thrives on new challenges.
Runner-up at last month’s Kenya Open after three top-12s in the Gulf, he’s a menace to all as it South African Justin Harding who beat him in Nairobi and went close the following week.
Best outsider is Sebastian Garcia Rodriguez, an aggressive Spaniard who placed fourth in Austria last year and caught the eye when taking the same position behind Harding in Nairobi.
Dual Major champion Martin Kaymer is golfing royalty but has not won since slaughtering the all-star US Open opposition by eight shots and more seven years ago. The German could easily outclass this modest lot but seems to have lost the knack.