The National Times - Masters legends praise Matsuyama's dinner achievement

Masters legends praise Matsuyama's dinner achievement

Masters legends praise Matsuyama's dinner achievement
Masters legends praise Matsuyama's dinner achievement

Honorary Masters starters Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson praised Hideki Matsuyama's Champions Dinner efforts and said Thursday his example could inspire more major winners from Japan.

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The golf legends struck ceremonial tee shots to launch the 86th Masters at Augusta National, where defending champion Matsuyama had been nervous about speaking in English but drew a standing ovation at Tuesday's meal for past winners.

"I thought we had the best dinner we ever had. It got us talking," said Nicklaus. "Hideki gave about a three-minute speech in English. He did not look at a note. He was terrific."

Watson, a newcomer to the first-tee tradition, watched as Matsuyama aced his foreign language challenge, something the Japanese star admitted he was nervous about.

"After the speech is over, he goes, 'Whew,'" Watson said. "Everybody got up to give him a standing ovation. Everybody appreciated the effort he put in to go three minutes with his speech in English."

Player spoke to Matsuyama in Japanese after the speech.

"I was absolutely in awe that he got up and gave this incredible speech," Player said. "Everybody got up and applauded and made him feel welcome."

Player said that Matsuyama, the first Asian-born Masters winner and first Japanese man to win a major, is an example for Japanese and Asian talent that green jackets and majors are more within reach than they once might have imagined.

"It was only a matter of time for Japan, so full of enthusiasm (for golf) to get a champion," Player said. "You've had Hideki do it and now you will have a lot of people in Japan thinking they can do it too."

Nicklaus, 82, won a record six green jackets while fellow American Watson, 72, captured two Masters titles and South African Player, 86, took three.

Watson, a five-time British Open winner, said he was "truly humbled" and "honored" to be asked to join Player and Nicklaus.

"The way I look at these old goats right here, I can't carry their shoes," Watson said. "I didn't feel I was in the same category as these two. I had a great career. I guess this is the culmination of it."

Watson recalled seeing past starters Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen handle tee shot duties.

"It's part of the heritage of the tournament I very much liked," said Watson, who said he was told he was among the ceremonial starters "as long as you like" by Augusta National officials.

- Is Tiger's mind ready? -

With Tiger Woods attempting an epic comeback at the Masters after a car crash 14 months ago that left him with severe right leg damage, Nicklaus warned that long layoffs such as the 17-month gap Woods is ending can weaken the mental game.

"When you haven't played any competition in a while, you have a tendency not to be as sharp mentally," Nicklaus said, though quickly adding, "I would never fault Tiger for his mental acumen because Tiger mentally is fantastic."

Player asked for mercy for critics of Phil Mickelson, the three-time Masters winner and six-time major champion who is missing the Masters for the first time since 1994.

The US left-hander, who last year became the oldest major winner in history at age 50 by winning the PGA Championship, is taking a break from golf following controversial comments regarding a proposed rival golf league to the US PGA Tour.

"He makes a mistake. We all have. He has said he is sorry. He should go on with his life," Player said. "I think it's pitiful... from the epitome of perfection, he has been down there crucified. It's not right. He said terrible things. But we all make mistakes."

Player said he would like to see Rory McIlroy win this week to complete a career Grand Slam, joining a list that includes Player, Nicklaus, Woods, Sarazen and Ben Hogan.

"He's the most talented player I've seen in ages and to have another Grand Slam winner would encourage more golf around the world," Player said.