Story Stream
recent articles

By the time you read this, Hideki Matsuyama will have returned the green jacket he won at August National Golf Club yesterday to its storied closet before heading back to Japan for a hero's welcome.

A reticent star even in normal circumstances, Matsuyama all but conceded afterward that the absence of a huge contingent of Japanese sports journalists (we're still in COVID world, remember) probably helped him stay calm as he cruised to victory in the 85th Masters Tournament.

Matsuyama is the first Masters champion from Japan, a place where the sport is hugely popular but PGA tour champions are rare: No Japanese golfer had ever finished in the top three at Augusta National or, for that matter, won a "major" (the Masters, the PGA, the U.S. Open, and the British Open). That's not true anymore, as no less an authority than five-time green jacket winner Tiger Woods noted Sunday.

"Making Japan proud Hideki," Woods tweeted. "Congratulations on such a huge accomplishment for you and your country. This is historical @TheMasters win will impact the entire golf world."

Matsuyama's win is also good for the Masters itself, and for the worldwide march toward inclusiveness and diversity in a vasty array of human endeavors outside athletics.

The first Masters was held in 1934 at a golf course designed for that purpose. Augusta National and the tournament itself were the brainchild of Atlanta-born golfing legend Bobby Jones. Needless to say, the Deep South was segregated in those days, but it was hardly alone -- as baseball fans know well. So, saying that the Masters has "racist roots," which was fashionable this year, is not untrue exactly, but imprecise. The more salient criticism is how slow Augusta National Golf Club was to reform itself: By the time Lee Elder became the first black player invited to the Masters, Gary Player, a white South African, had already won it twice. That was in 1975, 28 years after organized baseball's notorious color line was broken. Moreover, Augusta didn't admit its first black member until 1990, and the first women weren't admitted -- under pressure -- until 2012.

The first two female club members were South Carolina philanthropist Darla Moore and Condoleezza Rice, a native Alabaman living in California who achieved numerous historic firsts in her career and who happens to love golf. "This is a joyous occasion," Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne said at the time. He was right, although it was long overdue.

Barriers are made to be broken; some just take too long. Golfers such as Lee Elder -- and Teddy Rhodes and Charlie Sifford, who were never allowed to play Augusta -- carved out the trail that others followed. For starters, they opened paths to golfers of color who were yet unborn: Tiger Woods was born to a black father and an Asian mother the year Elder integrated the Masters. But these pioneers also liberated whites, if you will. Freeing them from the restricting blinders of bigotry. After Gary Player burst on the international golf scene by winning the U.S. Open in 1965, he openly defended South Africa's system of apartheid, which engendered protests against him. By 1971, however, Player invited Lee Elder to golf with him in South African tournaments. By the 1980s, Player was denouncing apartheid as "a cancerous disease."

It was an evolution, all right, and Gary Player wasn't the only one it happened to. Although this year's Masters ended with a Japanese golfer winning for the first time, it was launched with pomp and nostalgia four days earlier by a triumvirate of octogenarian golf greats: Elder, Player, and Jack Nicklaus, who himself had been slow to recognize the injustice of all-white golf tournaments.

At his own press conference after winning the Masters, 29-year-old Hideki Matsuyama demurred on the question of whether he is Japan's greatest golfer ever, but he did say, "I am the first to win a major. If that's the bar, I've set it." In words that Elder could appreciate, he added, "It's thrilling to think a lot of youngsters in Japan are watching today." 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Show comments Hide Comments