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Devastation in Japan weighs on players

Tuesday, April 05, 2011
By Scott Michaux
Staff Writer

They sat at the lectern - one Japanese teenager right after the other - and spoke from their broken hearts.

Back Photo: 1 of 2 Next

Hideki Matsuyama (center) laughs with Yuta Ikeda (left) at missing a short putt on No. 6 during Monday's practice round.

(Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff)

The Masters Tournament set to start right outside the door might as well have been a million miles away. Instead of Georgia, the devastation of their homeland from last month's earthquake and tsunami weigh heavy on the minds of Ryo Ishikawa and Hideki Matsuyama.

One is a gifted prodigy who has pledged every dollar he makes this year playing golf to the disaster relief, The other is a frightened amateur who can give only his best effort.

"I am from the Tohoku region back home and not sure if I should play in the Masters, even at this very moment," said Matsuyama. "Still, I have decided to play. I have decided to play because so many people have pushed me; the people at my university who have suffered, and my teammates and my parents, who made me start to play the sport of golf. Everyone has been supportive. I have decided to play at the Masters, not only for myself, but for the people who have made who I am. The Masters, which has been my dream, is their dream as well. Doing my best here is my obligation for them."

Ishikawa feels an obligation as well. As poised and polished a 19-year-old as you will ever find after years spent in front of a fawning media, the "Shy Prince" feels he owes everything to his countrymen back home.

"This is my fourth year as a professional golfer, and I was supported by many sponsors," he said. "They provided me with everything I need to play golf, and whatever I earned, I spent for golf. But now, as I see how those people supported me, now it's my turn to support those people who are in need, and I believe that is my responsibility. And as I recognize that, as my social status in Japan is getting higher, I believe that is one of the responsibilities, to provide for those people who are in need."

Try to imagine what must be going through Matsuyama's mind. The 18-year-old Asian Amateur champion is realizing a dream as he stares across acres and acres of Augusta National Golf Club at the greenest grass you'll ever see. If is impossible to reconcile the beauty of the Masters with the landscape of his college that was swept away by the sea.

Amateur Hideki Matsuyama and Yuta Ikeda share a common bond of heartache at the devastation that has struck their common homeland.

(Associated Press)

"I've seen it. I've seen it, and it's just indescribable," said Matsuyama, who was spared the catastrophe while playing golf in Australia. "I just cannot - I couldn't believe the city I live was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami, and it's just beyond imagination."

Ishikawa hasn't been home since the earthquake on March 11. He watched the coverage from Doral and remained in the U.S. through the Masters. But playing golf is his chance to give something back.

"I would really love to go and visit those people and encourage them," he said of his post-Masters plans. "And that's one of the reasons why I decided to donate the entire earnings this year for those people - so that I feel that I am with them and fighting with them side-by-side, although I will not be with them physically."

Even a golf tournament as universally recognized as the Masters is trivial by comparison. But both Ishikawa and Matsuyama understand the power sports has to unify and inspire. Competing in the Masters along with fellow Japanese golfers Yuti Ikeda and Hiroyuki Fujita is their gift to people back home where many sports events have been cancelled because of the quake.

"I believe in the power that sports can bring to those people who are affected by the disaster," said Ishikawa, whose eyes welled with emotion when he spoke about the letters of gratitude and encouragement he's received since announcing his support to the relief effort. "Therefore, I would like to really do my best to bring the joy to those people, and I believe that if those people here, Japanese players, are doing well, they will be encouraged by the fact that the Japanese people are doing really well in the world."

Golf can be such a selfish sport. Most of the time you play the game for yourself. But sometimes, you play it for an entire nation desperate for something positive to cling to.

Matsuyama has a million reasons to be scared playing golf with the best players in the world on the most magnified stage in front of more fans than he has ever imagined. But he hopes to do his part.

"I would like to just get birdies as much as I can, and that's my goal," he said. "Also, I would like to show my best to the people in Japan. I'm not a professional, I'm an amateur. But at the same time, I would like to do my best to provide the Japanese people encouragement."

This is Ishikawa's third Masters, and it will not be his last. But for Matsuyama, the opportunity might be fleeting. He thought of passing it up and staying at home to volunteer for the relief effort and help his family and friends, some of whom remain unaccounted for.

But he felt obliged to travel halfway around the world to say thanks.

"I wanted to thank the Masters Tournament for inviting me to this wonderful tournament," he said. "And also, I wanted to recognize the people in Japan and I wanted to thank those people who supported me. So many of the heartwarming messages from people around the world have been delivered, and still keep coming. As one of the sufferers, I would like to say thank you to the world. I am moved by the fact that we can be one community of the earth, whenever hardship arises. Golf is such a wonderful game and through my play, I will express my pleasure for playing at the Masters, and I promise to do my best."

Words from a teenager that we should all aspire to follow.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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