AUGUSTA, Ga. - 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.
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.”
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SEVE
Seve Ballesteros’ birthday is still a big deal, even if he’s not at the Masters.
The two-time champion, who is battling brain cancer, turned 54 on Saturday. Several European players tweeted birthday wishes to the Spaniard before they teed off, including third-round leader Rory McIlroy, and Jose Maria Olazabal called Ballesteros before he left for Augusta National.
“I called to say ‘Happy Birthday,’ and to pass along all of the good wishes from the rest of the champions,” said Olazabal, a fellow Spaniard and two-time Masters winner.
Ballesteros is undergoing chemotherapy, which Olazabal said “takes a toll” on him. But he has been following the Masters, where Ballesteros’ second victory in 1983 set off a wave of dominance by European golfers – eight green jackets for the Europeans in the next 11 years.
“Obviously he roots for the Europeans, without a doubt, so he’s happy in that sense,” Olazabal said. “He always believed this golf course suited the Europeans better than the U.S. Open, for example.”