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Where EAST meets the Northwest


REMARKABLE COMEBACK. Tiger Woods reacts after winning the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Tony Finau. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Si Woo Kim. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

From The Asian Reporter, V29, #09 (May 6, 2019), pages 8 & 9.

Three top-five finishes highlight a strong Asian year at the Masters

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

The Masters Tournament at Augusta is the most prestigious event in the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Tour. Each year, it features more and more prominent Asian and Asian-American golfers, but for many years, only one golfer with Asian roots had ever won the Masters, and two others had finished in the top five.

This year, however, golfers with eastern heritage did incredibly well, including two top-five finishes and a victory by Tiger Woods. Much has been written about the remarkable comeback by Woods, whose mother has Chinese and Thai roots. But plenty of other golfers with Asian heritage had strong finishes too.

Take Si Woo Kim, the 23-year-old South Korean who made his third appearance at the Masters after bouncing on and off the PGA Tour. After qualifying for the PGA Tour in 2013 at age 17, Kim lost his qualification after missing six straight cuts.

Kim fought his way back to the tour in 2016 but failed to make the cut in his first Masters in 2017. Unfazed, he won the Players Championship a month later, becoming the tournament’s youngest winner ever. And then at the 2018 Masters, Kim made the cut, finishing in a tie for 24th place.

This year, Kim shot 5-under at Augusta to tie for 21st place, thanks in part to his putting ability — he currently ranks third in putting average on the PGA Tour. With his skills and age, you can expect to hear plenty more about Kim in the future.

Kim might aspire to the performance of Tony Finau, the Tongan-Samoan golfer who always shines during the Masters. Finau joined the tour in 2015 and won his first event in 2016. He finished in a tie for 10th in his very first Masters in 2018, playing on a gimpy ankle.

On two healthy ankles, Finau did even better this year, starting with a 71 and 70 on the first two days and rising to 16th place. Then he rocketed into contention with a 64 on Saturday, shooting four birdies on the first six holes and an eagle on the eighth.

This great performance put him two shots off the lead and in the final grouping with Woods and tournament leader Francesco Molinari. All three stayed close in score until the 12th hole, when Molinari and Finau both hit their tee shots into the water, but Woods hit his onto the green. This changed the momentum of the tournament, allowing Woods to pull ahead for the win while Molinari and Finau slipped into a tie for fifth.

Tied with them was Jason Day, formerly the top golfer in the world. Day, who has family roots in the Philippines, battled a torn disc in his back that had flared up the day before the tournament. He managed to start on Thursday, but his back seized up again on the course, requiring treatment, but he worked past the pain to shoot a 70.

Day got even better on Friday, carding a 67 that vaulted him into a tie for first, but a 73 on Saturday dropped him back. Instead of flagging, however, Day rallied by birdieing six holes on Sunday against one bogey to rise to fifth, tying Molinari, Finau, and Webb Simpson.

Further down Augusta’s final standings were four promising young Japanese golfers, one receiving the tournament’s only special invitation. The top player on the Japan Golf Tour last year, 26-year-old Shigo Imahira didn’t quite rank high enough in the world rankings to qualify for the Masters, so he was extended a special invitation. He played fairly well, but carding a 76 on Thursday and 74 on Friday meant he missed the cut.

Faring much better than Imahira were his three countrymen: Takumi Kanaya, Hideki Matsuyama, and Satoshi Kodaira. Kodaira and Matsuyama qualified for the Masters based on their world rankings and strong PGA Tour performances.

Twenty-year-old Kanaya qualified after winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. Kanaya qualified after winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. He became one of four amateurs to make this year’s cut, shooting a combined three over par on Thursday and Friday. Kanaya carded a 68 on Saturday, but a 74 on the final day dropped him down to a tie for 58th place.

Kanaya still finished a stroke ahead of Kodaira, who played well on Friday and Saturday but framed those performances with a 75 on Thursday and 76 on Sunday. Kanaya’s finish was an incredible debut for an amateur on golf’s biggest stage, but Matsuyama had done even better in his own amateur debut in 2011.

That first year, Matsuyama carded a one-under to tie for 27th place, but he did even better in 2015, finishing in fifth place with an 11-under. This was his best finish at Augusta, but he also tied for seventh in 2016, 11th in 2017, and 19th in 2018.

This experience helped Matsuyama recover from a rough Thursday to shoot a 70 on Friday, a 68 on Saturday, and 72 on Sunday to tie him for 32nd place. While respectable for most other golfers, this Masters finish was Matsuyama’s worst since missing the cut in 2014.

Other notable Asian golfers also performed respectably at Augusta. Kiradech Aphibarnrat, the first Thai golfer to qualify for the PGA Tour, carded a strong 69 on the first day but shot four-over the rest of the way to finish tied for 49th place. China’s Haotong Li is only 23 years old, but he finished in 32nd place in his Masters debut last season after starting strong but fading down the stretch. This year, Li did the opposite, starting slowly and ending with a 68 to tie for 43rd.

Once, just reaching the Masters, whether via qualification or special invitation, was a victory for golfers from the east. But today, that’s no longer good enough as Asian and Asian-American golfers continue to climb the ladder. With so many players getting so close to victory, it won’t be long until another golfer with Asian roots dons the green jacket given to those who win at Augusta.

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