AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Hideki Matsuyama smiled as he walked from the front nine to the back on Sunday, never looking toward the giant scoreboard to his right. He held a three-shot lead in the Masters, going out in 2 under. Nine holes remained between him and a major championship, the first for a Japanese man. A siren went off in the distance. His caddie tossed a few blades of grass into the air and then Matsuyama stroked a drive right down the middle of the 10th fairway. It felt celebratory. What a strange thing, to have walked golf courses since the age of 4 and suddenly have this walk, so different from the others, carrying the weight of his own dreams, and those of people who came before him who made this possible.
After his approach, he walked up to the 10th green, and this time he looked to his left in the direction of another enormous scoreboard. What stared back at him was like some schoolboy's fantasy. He now led the Masters by five strokes, with his opponents slipping away. At that moment, it started to feel like a coronation walk. The birds chirped loudly in the trees and he two-putted for par. He smiled talking to his caddie and then laughed a little.
Charles Kikomoto from Denver, following the final pairing with his father, watched Matsuyama walk down into Amen Corner.
"For Japan, baby!" he yelled.
Back home, Matsuyama is obsessed over to the degree that he and his wife kept both their marriage and the birth of their child from the rabid Japanese media. Reporters write about every little thing, including, for instance, the weight Matsuyama has gained since moving to America. It's constant and oppressive but not a surprise. He carries an enormous burden as the best male Japanese golfer, because of the vital and complex importance the sport has carried in the country since the end of World War II. This burden has proved too much for him at times. When he made five bogeys coming home with a chance to win the 2017 PGA Championship, he broke down and wept on Japanese television after the round.
His defense against the attention, and how it makes him feel, is to be as private and withdrawn as possible. Friends call him shy. His favorite player growing up was Tiger Woods. When Matsuyama is in America, he enjoys Outback Steakhouse. He really likes to bowl and fish. He was born in 1992 at the beginning of what is known in Japan as The Lost Decade, when the country's booming economy collapsed.
Few things symbolized the gilded national wealth and confidence of the 1980s like the blooming of golf clubs. The average price to join grew 500% between 1982 and 1989, according to the South China Morning Post, and then another 190% in 1989 alone. A membership then cost as much as $3 million, and with the Nikkei rolling at 39,000, people paid it. What the hell, it's just money. Three years later, the year Matsuyama was born, the Nikkei was at 17,000, and in some ways the Japanese economy is still recovering. The cultural memory of this era is an important part of today's national identity. Memory is an essential part of daily life. Most homes include shrines where prayers are offered not to a deity, but to photographs of ancestors. The line between the past and the present is malleable, blurred and ever-present. Matsuyama walked that line Sunday afternoon.