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Sunday September 25th, 2022 5:01AM

Matsuyama returns to Masters, enjoying perks of a champion

By The Associated Press
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The introduction differs slightly from tournament to tournament, though the general theme never changes.

“The defending Masters champion.”

Those words, or some version of them, have been what Hideki Matsuyama has heard on the first tee of whatever tournament he's played over the last year. And last week at the Valero Texas Open, the words seemed to resonate differently — because that’s when Matsuyama realized that his reign is about to end.

“It was a little sad,” Matsuyama said.

There’s one way to avoid that, of course: He just needs to successfully defend his Masters title, something nobody has done at Augusta National since Tiger Woods in 2002. Matsuyama, the first Japanese man to win a major championship, is hoping a balky neck that has been bothering him for a few weeks is good enough on Thursday to give him a legitimate chance of winning the Masters again.

He went 6 under in a seven-hole stretch of the back nine in the third round last year to take command, then held on with a final-round 73 to beat Will Zalatoris by a shot. Matsuyama has won twice more since: the Zozo Championship in Japan in October, then the Sony Open in Hawaii in January.

“It’s been a great year,” Matsuyama said. “It’s great to be back here at Augusta. I feel very proud and honored to be here as the defending champion. It’s been a great year with wins at Zozo and Sony. Last couple of weeks, though, have been a struggle. Hopefully I can find my game and be a worthy defending champion.”

That last part is the mystery. The neck has even him guessing.

The issue with the left side of his neck first presented itself during the second round at Bay Hill last month. He got through that tournament, tying for 20th, and went to Texas last week pain-free and feeling good for a couple of days.

Then came Wednesday, it stiffened up again and Matsuyama eventually withdrew.

“I haven’t really been able to hit a full shot, a 100% full shot in a long time, so that’s still a question,” Matsuyama said. “But I feel like the treatment I’ve been receiving is helping. I’m on the road to full recovery. ... I think by Thursday I’ll be ready to play my best, hopefully.”

He showed last year that his best is more than enough.

Matsuyama first came to Augusta National as an amateur in 2011, getting to the Masters after winning what was then called the Asian Amateur and is now called the Asia-Pacific Amateur. It’s a relatively new tournament, having been contested only 12 times and won by 10 men — three of whom are in this Masters field.

They all played a practice round together this week as well; Matsuyama was joined by reigning Asia-Pacific winner Keita Nakajima and 2018 winner Takumi Kanaya.

“Following the footsteps of Takumi Kanaya and Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, it’s an honor to do that,” Nakajima said.

Matsuyama expected his playing partners to pepper him with questions about how to play this and that at Augusta National.

Turns out, he was the one driving the conversation.

“If I can be an inspiration to them, it makes me very happy,” Matsuyama said. “Hopefully last year’s Masters win will help inspire and encourage a lot of young people in Japan to take up golf and follow in my footsteps. ... I don’t know if they were bashful or what, but I was hoping to be able to talk more with them.”

Which, given Matsuyama’s penchant for privacy, is a bit of a surprising take. He’s polite in interviews, even smiling a bit and giving knowing nods when his best lines drew laughs after getting translated for largely English-speaking reporters on Tuesday, yet would never be described as an open book.

Matsuyama kept the menu for Tuesday night’s Masters Club Dinner — it’s more commonly called the Champions Dinner — largely under wraps until it was announced that morning. None of his selections was particularly surprising, especially since the theme was to celebrate the best of Japanese fare.

Sushi, sashimi and nigiri were to be served as appetizers, along with Yakitori — essentially meaning grilled — chicken skewers.

Miso-glazed black cod with a Japanese broth would be offered, as would the centerpiece: A5 Wagyu ribeye of beef, arguably the finest cut in the world, served with mushrooms and vegetables along with a sansho daikon ponzu, a sauce that gets a bit of a spicy kick from Japanese radishes.

For dessert, Japanese strawberry shortcake — sponge cake with Amaou strawberries, generally considered Japan’s best kind, ones that are typically available only through winter and some of spring in that country.

“I’m really looking forward to the Champions Dinner,” Matsuyama said.

It’ll provide him a chance to enjoy a perk that he’s rarely partaken in since winning the Masters. He’ll get to wear his green jacket.

Matsuyama carried the jacket — Masters winners get to take it off the Augusta National property for a year before it’s supposed to be returned — onto a commercial flight out of Atlanta the day after winning it a year ago. He tends not to wear it. He’s even leery of sending it out for dry cleaning.

“I thought about it and it needed to be cleaned, but I just was so worried that something might happen to it,” Matsuyama said. “So I didn’t want to let it out of my sight. I just spent a year looking at it. I haven’t really worn it that much, but I look at it a lot. And now I wish I would have worn it more.”

The introduction on tee boxes changes now. The jacket gets returned. He'll drape one over the shoulders of a new champion Sunday.

That is, unless he wins the Masters again.

___

More AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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