AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Hideki Matsuyama is focused on Augusta National. His heart is half a world away in Sendai, Japan.
The 19-year-old golfer is a student at Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai, the city that took the brunt of the March 11 earthquake and the tsunami that followed.
He still can’t reach some friends there; he has no idea what will be left of his school when he returns.
Yet he has somehow managed to put his worry and despair aside at the Masters, if only for these few days. He was the only amateur to make the cut and, after a 68 on Saturday, is at 3 under for the tournament. The 68 is the lowest by an amateur since James Driscoll’s in the first round in 2001.
“I was very happy to come over here and play the Masters,” Matsuyama said. “I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to encourage the people in Japan by my play. But at least I really wanted to enjoy this experience.”
Matsuyama earned his spot in the Masters by winning the Asian Amateur last October. The tournament is sponsored in part by Augusta National Golf Club and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club to spur development in golf’s fastest-growing market, with the trip to the Masters the biggest perk for the winner.
Like the rest of golf’s Kiddie Corps, Matsuyama’s earliest memories of the Masters are from 1997, when a young Tiger Woods blew away the field on his way to his first green jacket. But after the earthquake, Matsuyama wasn’t sure if this was the right time to try to follow in Woods’ footsteps.
Matsuyama’s family live in Ehime, more than 500 miles from Sendai, and was spared the quake’s devastation. Matsuyama escaped it, too; he was in Australia training at the time.
But he returned to Sendai shortly afterward and found his dorm room in shambles, and had trouble finding food in the two days he was there.
“I was very shocked to see that much devastation in the place where I live,” Matsuyama said through an interpreter. “I wasn’t able to calm myself.”
After talking to his coach, Matsuyama decided he wouldn’t be helping anyone by staying amid the destruction.
At least if he went to the Masters he’d be doing something.
“After that, I was able to focus myself to play golf,” he said. “This is one of the best things I can do to cope with the situation.”
With its rolling hills and fickle greens, Augusta National is challenge enough for experienced players, let alone amateurs. No amateur has ever won, and there are years none has made the cut. To have any hope of success, an amateur needs to latch on to a veteran and soak up all the knowledge he can, or have his caddie pick the brain of one who’s been here plenty of times.
Matsuyama did neither. His caddie, Taisho Okabe, is one of his teammates at Tohoku Fukushi, and they figured out Augusta National on the fly.
“Going through the practice rounds, we learned together,” Matsuyama said.
Matsuyama played decently the first two days, but flirted with the cut line after closing with two bogeys Friday. He then spent the afternoon scouring TV and the Internet for updates, hoping he’d make the cut.
He did, right on the number. The pressure off, Matsuyama played beautifully Saturday.
“I’m very happy that I was able to make the cut yesterday and I was able to play really well today,” Matsuyama said. “I would like to do my best and play well tomorrow.”
Matsuyama plans to leave Monday for Sendai, and has no idea what he will find upon his return. But he is grateful for the security he’s found between the ropes.
“I was very glad,” he said, “to be able to play in this beautiful place.”