THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The 1979 FA Cup famously ended with what is now known as the "Five-Minute Final": Arsenal dominated Manchester United and led 2-0 until the 85th minute, after which United amazingly scored twice to equalize only for Arsenal's Alan Sunderland to almost immediately head home a last-gasp winner. Well, in 2021 we've now had the "Five-Minute Masters".
Matsuyama began Sunday with a four-shot lead, built it - after an early burst from rookie Will Zalatoris - to six shots with seven holes to play, and seemed determined to drain every drop of drama from the contest. But after his playing partner Xander Schauffele birdied four holes in a row and Matsuyama himself airmailed the 15th green into the pond beyond it, the Japanese very suddenly led by only two with three to play. For a few moments, the tournament was suddenly alive and kicking with tension …and then Schauffele, unforgivably, hit his next tee shot into the same pond Matsuyama had already visited, and that was that. Schauffele triple-bogeyed the 16th; Matsuyama bogeyed it, and the 18th as well, but held off Zalatoris for the most comfortable, least exciting one-shot victory in Masters history.
If that sounds like damnation with faint praise, it isn't. Matsuyama putted as well as he has for years, and his ball-striking was consistently superlative all week, particularly after a Saturday rain delay softened what had been surprisingly US Open-like greens at Augusta National. Only Justin Rose's stunning 65 on Thursday – leader in the clubhouse for the best round of 2021 - was better, but Rose lacked Matsuyama's staying power and eventually faded into 7th place.
Matsuyama opened the 2020 Players Championship with a 63 before Covid-19 shut down The Players, the PGA Tour and the rest of the world; how poetic, then, that he should become the first Japanese man to win a major at the first major with fans in attendance since the pandemic began.
In winning The Masters, Matsuyama became the second man in as many weeks to record his first PGA Tour victory since the summer of 2017. Because seven days earlier, Spieth had won the Valero Texas Open, his first title since the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. And at Augusta, Spieth played mostly indifferent golf yet still tied for third place with Schauffele, an ominous result for his Tour colleagues but a delightful development for the golfing cognoscenti.
Between September and January, Spieth had missed four of five cuts, shot an 81 at Winged Foot in the US Open and looked as lost as he had at any point in the previous three-and-a-half years. But when fans returned to Tour events in February, so did Spieth's game: T4 in Phoenix, T3 at Pebble Beach, T15 at Riviera, T4 at Bay Hill, T48 at The Players, T9 at the WGC Match Play, 1st in San Antonio, T3 at The Masters. That is the track record of a superstar, and yet Spieth still has plenty of room for improvement; his driving, though vastly better of late, remains erratic, and his putting has been merely good-to-streaky, rather than the otherworldly weapon it was at his peak.
Spieth's style of golf is markedly different to that of other stars like Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and especially Bryson DeChambeau: his primary calling cards are finesse, creativity and a Seve Ballesteros-like capacity to escape any jam, not raw ability to hit a golf ball far and/or straight. And whether or not you enjoy his unfiltered chatter with caddie Michael Greller, Spieth brings a personality and charisma to professional golf which many of his peers do not. Matsuyama's Masters hopefully heralds a new consistency in his career which may propel him to superstardom; Spieth's reemergence this year reminds us of the superstar he was, and perhaps already is again. Roll on Kiawah Island and the PGA Championship in May: the Tour's cast list just keeps getting deeper and deeper and better and better.
Darren Kilfara formerly wrote for Golf Digest magazine and is the author of A Golfer's Education, a memoir of his junior year abroad as a student-golfer at the University of St. Andrews, and Do You Want Total War?, a novel about how people study and experience history.