Matsuyama's play helps Asian Amateur

 Amateur Hideki Matsuyama hits a shot on the second hole during the second round of the 2011 Masters.

Amateur Hideki Matsuyama hits a shot on the second hole during the second round of the 2011 Masters.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Hideki Matsuyama’s backswing is slow and deliberate, to ensure that the club passes through the proper positions on its way up. He pauses when the club reaches parallel, then swings through the ball with maximum acceleration. It’s a unique swing for a player who now owns a unique distinction.

With a 1-over 145 (72-73) over the Masters’ first two rounds, Matsuyama became the first Asian Amateur champion to make the cut at the Masters. He also was the only amateur to make the cut at Augusta National this year. His performance validates a fledgling tournament, created two years ago, that was criticized for getting a Masters exemption.

“I think I’m doing much better than expected,” Matsuyama, 19, said through an interpreter. “I’m very, very happy.”

Matsuyama won last year’s Asian Amateur by five shots, then finished third in the Japan Open later that year. He beat Ryo Ishikawa by seven shots at the Open, and finished just three shots behind winner Kyung-Tae Kim, No. 38 in the Official World Golf Ranking, and one behind Hiroyuki Fujita, who’s ranked 58th.

Like the rest of the Japanese players at Augusta National, Matsuyama is playing in the shadow of the unthinkable earthquake-tsunami tragedy in his homeland. He is a sophomore at Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai, one of the country’s hardest-hit cities.

Matsuyama was with his university’s golf team at a camp in Australia when the quake hit last month. His second year at Tohoku Fukushi was scheduled to start in April, but postponed until next month because of damage from the magnitude-9.0 earthquake just off Japan's east coast and resulting tsunami.

He said the damage to Sendai is “indescribable,” which made him unsure if he should play the Masters. He decided to play, “not only for myself, but for the people who have made me who I am. Doing my best here is my obligation to them.”

His performance here also benefits the tournament through which he gained his invitation.

The Asian Amateur was created in 2009 by the Augusta National Golf Club, the R&A and the Asia-Pacific Golf Confederation, and its winner was immediately granted a Masters exemption. Some felt a sacred Masters invitation shouldn’t be given to the winner of an inaugural tournament in a distant region, where the quality of amateur competitors was unknown.

Augusta National considers the Asian Amateur a “grow-the-game” initiative. It wanted the event to foster growth in Asia by creating heroes to inspire future generations. No better way to do that than inviting Asia’s developing talent to one of the world’s most-visible tournaments.

The winner of that first Asian Amateur, Chang-Won Han, shot 79-76 at last year’s Masters after his 2009 victory in China. His struggles validated those who thought that Asia’s best amateur was unworthy of a Masters invite. It would not have helped the tournament’s credibility had Matsuyama shown similar form.

Instead, as the only amateur to make the cut, he clinched the low-amateur award with two rounds still remaining.

“He hung in there well,” said playing partner Trevor Immelman, who made the cut at Augusta as an amateur in 1999. “It’s a big week for those guys. You get to rub shoulders with the greatest players in the game. It could be overwhelming.”

But it wasn’t, much to the benefit of Asia’s amateur championship.

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