GEORGIA ON THEIR MIND

15 Apr 2024

Matsuyama, Kim, Lee, Hovland and Aberg will be amongst the contenders in this year’s Masters Tournament.

Should you have an allegiance to the meteorological calendar, likely an alarm went off inside your head on 1 March. Alert, alert, it’s the arrival of spring here in the Northern Hemisphere.

Ah, yes, spring. That season of newness and transformations, spring in golf terms means one thing: The Masters is right around the corner.

Now should any mention of the Masters conjure up visions of green – as in the coveted jacket given to the winner, or an endless stretch of vibrant grass, or breathless views of massive

Georgia pines that seemingly can touch the sky – here is a suggestion:

Change your dial to another of the human senses and lock into taste. It should ignite strong signals within, because the variety of flavours within the Masters is plentiful and where the richness is becoming more noticeable each and every April is with the unmistakable strength of the international entrants.

Min Woo Lee, seen here with sister Min Jee, will be flying the Australian flag at this year’s tournament.

Golf fans, say hello to a lineup of Masters participants who deserve your attention: Hideki Matsuyama of Japan and fellow countrymen Ryo Hisatsune; Koreans Tom Kim, Sungjae Im, Si Woo Kim; and Min Woo Lee, born to Korean parents but raised primarily in Australia. And let’s not forget the likes of reigning FedExCup champion, Viktor Hovland of Norway and one of the hottest rising stars of the game, Ludvig Aberg of Sweden, who will be making his Masters debut.

They are young – Matsuyama, seemingly around forever, is the oldest of this group, but he’s only 32, while Hisatsune, at 21, is the youngest – but question their abilities at your own peril.

To appreciate the flavour this group of players bring to the Masters is to require you study the precious history of this major championship. Debuting in 1934 and built upon the vision of iconic amateur Bobby Jones, the Masters has always been an invitational and the credo has never wavered.

Organisers wanted the best players, yes, but they also wanted to widen its embrace to make sure it paid tribute to players in all corners of the globe.

Ryo Hisatsune, just 21, is a rising star looking to break through for his first major.

In 1934, invites were extended to golfers from England and Canada. Two years later, a pair of golfers from Japan – Torchy Toda and Chick Chin – were included in the field. The field in 1940 included Jim Ferrier of Australia and a pair of golfers from Argentina, Martin Pose and Enrique Bertolino.

As the game has evolved and a deeper pool of talented players has emerged, filling the field has required Masters officials to rely on standards of qualifying (the Official World Golf Ranking, PGA TOUR winners, high finishes in the major championship finishes) and annually they have acquitted themselves brilliantly. But to give them further credit, tournament officials appreciate that there are times when players slip through the criteria and so special invites are extended.

One of them for 2024 has gone to Hisatsune. “The Masters Tournament has a long-standing tradition of inviting leading international players who are not otherwise qualified,” said Augusta National and Masters chairman Fred Ridley on the day invites were given to Hisatsune, Chilean Joaquin Niemann and Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen.

It’s a slice of Masters tradition that is widely respected and you’d be hard-pressed to say club officials don’t walk the talk when it comes to their international vision. Consider, for example, the impressive history of both the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship and Latin America Amateur Championship.

Korea’s Tom Kim must be one of the favourites, despite only turning 24 this year.

The winner of these tournaments earns Masters invitations and catch yourself before you smile and think it’s a cute, but hardly impactful, exercise.

The winner of the first two Asia-Pacific Amateurs – a youngster from Japan, Hideki Matsuyama, who went on to secure historic Masters win in 2021. The 2018 Latin America winner – Niemann, one of the world’s hottest players, who received his Masters invite for his stirring win in the Australian Open.

Should you pay close attention to the heavyweights who’ll come into Augusta in early April, likely you’ll notice a trend. They are top-heavy with American citizenry. We’re talking world No. 1 and 2022 Masters champ Scottie Scheffler; those ranked Nos. 5 and 6, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay, who combine for 15 PGA TOUR wins; No. 7 Wyndham Clark, the reigning U.S. Open winner; and the potent trio of Jordan Spieth, the 2015 Masters champ; two-time major winner Collin Morikawa; and two-time PGA Championship winner Justin Thomas.

That seven quality names, all of them Americans, but before you pledge an allegiance to the red, white, and blue, remember this historical note about the Masters: There had been 49 Masters played by 1979 with only one international winner (Gary Player of South Africa) when a Spaniard by the name of Seve Ballesteros brought a new era to the Masters and golf.

Viktor Hovland of Norway, World No.4, is the highest ranking player in the field not to have won a major.

Ballesteros won the first of his two Masters in 1980 and over the
next 21 years an International player slipped into the Green Jacket 12 times. While there’s been a burst of wins by Americans Tiger Woods (five) and Phil Mickelson (three), seven International golfers have added their names to the rollcall of Masters winners.

Is it hyperbole to suggest that Matsuyama’s historic win in 2021 could open a floodgate of Masters winners from Japan and Korea, and other International ports such as Australia (Lee), Chile (Niemann), Norway (Hovland), Sweden (Åberg)? History is on their side and one thing we know for certain about the Masters is this: It adds to its rich history every year.

In 2024, those historical subplots will be widely talked about. Most prominently, Rory McIlroy’s 10th time in Augusta where the talk will be about his chance to win the career Grand Slam. (Only five have done that – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods).

Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, the 2021 Masters Champion, will be looking to win his second green jacket.

The buzz will certainly swirl around Scheffler’s immaculate ball-striking and suddenly suspect putting, just as it will focus on whether Schauffele (a second, a third and a T-10 in three of his five visits to Augusta) can finally get the job done to wear a Green Jacket.

Worthy storylines, all of them, but so, too, is this contingent of International names – especially the youngsters from Japan and Korea and Australia (via Korea). Tom Kim was T-16 in his Masters debut in 2023; Sungjae Im has two top 10s in four visits to Augusta; Lee was T-14 in his Masters debut two years ago; Si Woo Kim has made the cut in six of his seven Masters starts.

Oh, and then there is the road taken by Matsuyama. He was low amateur in his debut 13 years ago, then he was top finisher in 2021. To suggest he might go down as the golfer who opened doors and showed his colleagues the way might not be a stretch.

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