The Masters: Matsuyama hoping to be pioneer for Japanese golf after winning historic green jacket

By Sports Desk April 11, 2021

Hideki Matsuyama hopes his history-making Masters triumph will pave the way for more Japanese success among men.

Matsuyama made history as he became the first Japanese man to win a major tournament after claiming The Masters by one shot in a thrilling finale at Augusta on Sunday.

A five-time PGA Tour winner before this success, Matsuyama withstood a wobble and the threat posed by Xander Schauffele (72) and Will Zalatoris (70) to complete a memorable performance in Georgia, where he triumphed at 10 under par overall following a 73 to get his hands on the green jacket.

Matsuyama (2011) became the third Masters champion in the last five years to have previously earned low amateur honours, following in the footsteps of Woods (2019, low amateur in 1995) and Sergio Garcia (2017, low amateur in 1999).

After replicating the major success of countrywomen Hinako Shibuno (2019 Women's British Open) and Chako Higuchi (1977 LPGA Championship) on the men's circuit, Matsuyama said: "Hopefully I'll be a pioneer in this and many other Japanese will follow.

"I'm glad to be able to open the floodgates hopefully, and many more will follow me."

Matsuyama – four strokes clear at the start of the day – had extended his lead to five at the turn, but his title bid threatened to turn sour as Schauffele closed in and Zalatoris loomed.

After finding water at the par-five 15th hole, Matsuyama took the penalty and cleaned up for bogey as Schauffele continued to heap pressure on the Japanese hopeful, cutting the lead to two shots with his fourth consecutive birdie.

But Schauffele's pursuit of a maiden major collapsed when the American – seven back at the 12th tee before rallying – also found water before sending his next shot into the crowd.

Matsuyama had a routine par to move three shots clear with two to play, but he dropped another shot, his lead down to two ahead of Zalatoris as an ill-timed triple-bogey sent 2019 runner-up Schauffele down to equal third alongside Spieth – four shots behind.

That was the breathing space Matsuyama needed as Japan's new poster boy held his nerve, doing what he needed to do during the final two holes in front of an appreciative crowd on the 18th, where not even a bogey could wipe away the champion's smile.

"My nerves really didn't start on the second nine," Matsuyama said. "It was right from the start today. Right to the very last putt."

With his final-round 73, Matsuyama became the eighth player (nine instances) to claim The Masters despite an over-par final round – Trevor Immelman was the last to do so in 2008.

Asked what moment he realised he was going to win The Masters, the 29-year-old added: "Hitting the fairway with my tee shot at 18."

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  • How Kevin De Bruyne's worst Premier League season became his best How Kevin De Bruyne's worst Premier League season became his best

    Three of Manchester City's five previous Premier League triumphs have gone right to the wire, where margins are so fine the title battle can be settled by a single man in a single moment.

    Sergio Aguero of course set the standard in 2011-12 with surely the most iconic goal of the Premier League era, defeating QPR at the death and clinching a first City championship in 44 years.

    Then, in 2018-19, it was Vincent Kompany's turn. Although the departing City captain made only 17 league appearances that year, he will forever be associated with the title win after his thunderous strike secured a vital late-season victory over Leicester City.

    "Where do you want your statue, Vincent Kompany?" asked Sky Sports' Gary Neville. Both Aguero and Kompany – and those celebrations – have since been committed to steel structures outside the Etihad Stadium.

    The City hero was perhaps not quite so clear-cut in 2013-14, when Liverpool's collapse took centre stage, but Yaya Toure's 20 goals from midfield kept his side in touch. While City spent only 15 days of the season at the summit, the win that put them there in the final week perhaps provided the defining image of the champions' campaign, as Toure charged through the Aston Villa defence to score a goal that BBC Sport's Alan Shearer considered "like watching a 15-year-old against under-12s".

    Three City legends have had seasons to call their own. Kevin De Bruyne, until now, had not.

    De Bruyne was the PFA Players' Player of the Year in consecutive years, but the 2019-20 campaign in which he equalled Thierry Henry's 20-assist, single-season record ended with Liverpool on top. The 2020-21 season played out largely without fans and ultimately without a serious challenge to City, robbing their leading man of his platform.

    Consistent excellence had for so long characterised the midfielder's career rather than any particular peak.

    Now, however, 2021-22 might be remembered as the De Bruyne season – a most unexpected conclusion given how the campaign started, as perhaps his worst in a City shirt.

    'Difficult physically and mentally'

    The player of the year he may have been, but De Bruyne's 2020-21 season did not finish in the manner he would have wished.

    The former Chelsea man lasted only an hour of City's Champions League final defeat to the Blues last May, suffering facial fractures that impacted his preparation for Euro 2020. De Bruyne found form again at the finals, only to hobble out of Belgium's last-16 win over Portugal with an ankle issue.

    Although De Bruyne played in the next round, as Belgium lost to Italy, he continued to be hampered by the injury at the start of this season, appearing in City's Premier League opener but then not again for almost four weeks.

    "It's been a bit difficult physically and mentally," the 30-year-old told the MIDMID podcast in November, revealing he had played through "some serious pain".

    "It's going to be a little more difficult this year than usual," De Bruyne suggested, and that seemed a fair prediction.

    The City superstar, who also missed time with COVID-19, made his 10th league appearance of the season in a 1-0 home win over Wolves on December 11. At that stage, he had scored only twice in the competition and failed to provide a single assist – averaging a goal involvement every 246 minutes.

    The only comparable De Bruyne season in a City shirt was in 2018-19, when two knee ligament injuries meant his 10th league appearance did not come until early February. Over 465 minutes up to that point, he scored once.

    That is the sole other example of De Bruyne not contributing an assist through his first 10 league outings in a season for City; in fact, he had tallied at least four assists and six goal involvements by that point in each of his other five campaigns prior to 2021-22.

    A week before De Bruyne's podcast appearance last year, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez was also asked to address his star man's form, acknowledging the "scrutiny" he faced while underperforming in a team as talented as City's.

    "I'm not worried at all," Martinez said. "We feel that his best football is coming back."

    De Bruyne added: "I just needed more time than expected."

    'Now he scores a lot'

    De Bruyne's 11th game of this campaign was very different. In a 7-0 City win over Leeds United, the team's talisman doubled his seasonal tally by scoring twice, including a thunderous 25-yard drive for his second.

    "For the whole team, it's a booster," De Bruyne told NBC Sports – although that surely applied more to the two-goal star than his team-mates, with City moving four points clear at the top of the table with the victory.

    "There's been a lot happening this year, a little bit out of my control, so the only thing I can do is try to work hard and come back as quick as possible," he said.

    It was clearly a turning point for De Bruyne, who has scored 13 goals and provided seven assists in 19 matches from the Leeds game onwards. A goal involvement every 81 minutes over this period just beats his single-season best from 2019-20 (85 minutes per goal involvement).

    Yet De Bruyne's role has altered in the past two years. He will not match his outstanding 33 goal involvements from the year Liverpool won the title, but 15 goals already represent a career high with one game still to play on Sunday.

    The reason for that change perhaps has more to do with De Bruyne's City team-mates than the player himself.

    In 2019-20, six of De Bruyne's 20 assists were for record goalscorer Aguero – more than for any other player. Of course, Aguero has since departed.

    The retired striker was City's leading marksman in six of his 10 league campaigns in Manchester, including each of his first four playing alongside De Bruyne.

    With Aguero gone and Erling Haaland not arriving until next term, City needed someone to fill the void in front of goal. De Bruyne, whether used in midfield or attack, has done that in the second half of the season.

    Despite the slow start, City's top scorer has scored with 20.3 per cent of his shots in 2021-22; his previous high, in his debut 2015-16 season, saw a shot conversion rate of 14.3 per cent.

    "I like it a lot," Pep Guardiola said in April after De Bruyne had netted four in four games – including two against Manchester United and one against Liverpool.

    "He is not just a player to make assists – now he scores a lot of goals. I've said to him many times, 'I know you enjoy making a lot of assists, for you and your team-mates, but you have to score goals to reach another stage'. Now he is doing that, a lot of goals and chances."

    'We have to move on'

    De Bruyne has either scored or assisted in 13 of his past 19 games, but he saved his best performances for when it mattered most – at least in the league.

    There were suspicions City's season might fall apart when Real Madrid's remarkable semi-final recovery eliminated Guardiola's side from the Champions League at the start of May. With Liverpool in hot pursuit in the Premier League, the leaders were afforded little time to regroup as they headed straight into matches against Newcastle United at home and Wolves away.

    "We are going to play against Newcastle thinking about [the Madrid defeat], for sure," said Guardiola in an enthralling news conference, revealing two days before the Newcastle match: "We didn't speak. No words can help what all of us feel. It's just a question of time."

    Time, and Tottenham drawing at Liverpool, as it turned out.

    A rare slip-up at Anfield on the eve of City's game against Newcastle eased the pressure on the champions. Then De Bruyne got to work.

    Briefly restored to his 2019-20 vintage, De Bruyne attempted only a single shot at the Etihad but created six chances in a 5-0 win – his most in a single game this season – including an assist for Rodri's goal.

    That performance prompted Jamie Carragher in the Sky Sports studio to declare De Bruyne "the greatest player to ever play for Manchester City", "the best midfield player in the world right now" and "the best player in the Premier League for the past three or four years".

    Yet better was still to come at Wolves, where City became the first team in English top-flight history to win five consecutive league games by a margin of at least three goals. De Bruyne alone outscored Wolves by three, netting four in a 5-1 victory.

    The first hat-trick of his City career was completed inside 24 minutes – the third-fastest in Premier League history – to blow away a Wolves team who had briefly threatened to cause their visitors some problems.

    "It should have been five, to be honest," De Bruyne told Sky Sports, before conversation turned back to the Madrid match.

    "It's very difficult to explain because it was just a mad five minutes," he said. "It's not that we played bad or something, it was just five minutes that you can't explain as a player. I don't know what happened. I was out of control on the bench anyway, so you feel a little bit in shock. It's not nice and the feeling is still not nice.

    "But you need to move on. We're trying now to win the title and whatever happened unfortunately happened. We have to move on."

    The Wolves display would have been fresh in Carragher's mind on Monday when he named De Bruyne his personal player of the season. Whether established individual end-of-season honours beckon for De Bruyne is another matter, though. He was nominated for the official Premier League prize, but many such awards are voted on well in advance of the final weeks of the campaign – before De Bruyne had done his best work.

    Mohamed Salah is the FWA Footballer of the Year; he has scored three goals in his past 10 games – fewer than De Bruyne managed on one night in Wolverhampton.

    A Premier League title, defined by his clutch performances, would not be a bad consolation.

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  • 'He is our Mo Salah' – Tuchel wants fix for Kante's fitness issues 'He is our Mo Salah' – Tuchel wants fix for Kante's fitness issues

    Thomas Tuchel said Chelsea must find a solution to N'Golo Kante's fitness struggles after the Blues came from a goal down to draw 1-1 with Leicester City.

    Marcos Alonso volleyed home to cancel out James Maddison's opener in front of Todd Boehly, part of a consortium looking to take ownership of the club, with the Blues all but securing a third-place finish in the Premier League despite having won just one of their last five league games (three draws, one loss).

    Tuchel's men have now drawn 11 league games during a frustrating season, more than they have managed in a single campaign since recording 10 stalemates when finishing 10th in 2015-16.

    World Cup winner Kante played the first 72 minutes against his former club before being replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek, but has been linked with a move away with his Stamford Bridge contract due to expire in 2023.

    The 31-year-old has only started 20 of the Blues' 37 league games this term, featuring for a total of just 1,688 minutes in the Premier League and missing out entirely on 12 of the team's league fixtures.

    Speaking in his post-match press conference, Tuchel said the midfielder was Chelsea's "key player", stressing the need to resolve his fitness issues.

    Tuchel also likened Kante to the players such as Mohammed Salah, Kylian Mbappe and several other world stars, claiming he lifts the rest of the side when fit.

    "I think he is our key, key, key player, but key, key, key players need to be on the pitch. He plays only 40 per cent of the games, so then it is maybe a miracle that we arrive in third place," Tuchel said.

    "He is our Mo Salah, he is our [Virgil] van Dijk, he is our [Kevin] De Bruyne. He is simply that player, he is our Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.

    "He is that guy who makes the difference and if you only have him for 40 per cent then it is a huge problem. Given that percentage, it is maybe a miracle that he produces results. 

    "It puts everything into perspective as I saw Liverpool without Van Dijk last season and they struggled heavily. You see the difference. N'Golo is our key player and we need him on the pitch.

    "It's hard to live with. It's important for him to be there and to have the rhythm. I think he played okay but he can play so much better. But when was the last game he started? It was weeks ago. So he constantly starts getting rhythm, but once he has that, there comes a little injury and he's out again.

    "Last year, in the last five matches of the Champions League, he got the [man of the match] trophy. This guy who gets man of the match in every Champions League game, he is only here for 40-something per cent of the matches. This is huge for us."

    Meanwhile, Chelsea were once again left to rely on their wing-backs to provide attacking impetus against the Foxes, with Reece James claiming his eighth league assist of the season by teeing up Alonso's goal.

    James has now created twice as many goals this season as in his previous two Premier League campaigns combined (four assists in 56 appearances), while the Blues also racked up 20 shots to Leicester's two over the course of the contest.

    Christian Pulisic was guilty of missing Chelsea's best chance to claim a second-half winner as the hosts created 1.64 expected goals (xG) to the Foxes' 0.09, and while Tuchel was content with his team's performance, he was again left to bemoan their lack of cutting edge.  

    "We were the better team and deserved to win," he added. "We didn't allow any chances and got punished by a shot from outside the box. We created enough to win, didn't allow transitions and chances for Leicester. So, I am fine with the performance.

    "It's a bit of a broken record, we did not take what we deserve. We needed a goal from a wing-back and an assist from a wing-back."

    Chelsea will round off their Premier League campaign with another home match on Sunday, when relegated Watford travel to Stamford Bridge.

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