While setting aside the obvious fact that every victory in golf has a feel-good nature to it, there are some wins that resonate more than others and are meaningful not just to the man in the arena who achieved it.
The latest occurred Sunday just outside of Tokyo when Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, the reigning Masters champion, won the Zozo Championship in his native country. The victory, coming a few months after a disappointing performance in the Olympics, also in Japan, obviously meant a great deal to Matsuyama, who wanted badly to win in front of his countrymen and who vowed he “must revenge” his loss to Tiger Woods two years earlier in the inaugural event.
Already a hero for his Masters triumph, making him the first male golfer from Japan to win a major championship, Matsuyama capped his best season with a victory that he could share with the Japanese people, who are among the most fervent supporters of the game. Feel-good vibes all around.
The occasion brought to mind some other notable wins by players who triumphed before “home” crowds, leaving just about everyone with a shared sense of satisfaction. Here are a few:
Steve Stricker leads Team USA to record Ryder Cup romp in his native Wisconsin
Yep, just last month, a teary-eyed Stricker—a happy Stricker is always a teary-eyed one—captained the American team to a dominating win over Europe at Whistling Straits, and when he wasn’t letting the emotion of the moment wash over him, he was accepting all the applause and cheers from his fellow cheese heads with genuine gratitude. There was a lot of pressure on the Madison product, ratcheted up by having to wait an extra year, but saying it was worth it is an understatement.
Arnold Palmer captains USA to victory in 1975 Ryder Cup
There were countless references last month at Whistling Straits to the ’75 Ryder Cup team, and for good reason; the USA dominated the last GB&I team to compete in America, winning 21-11. Another was the symmetry of another hometown captain leading the way. Palmer was one of the founders of Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier, Pa., which is just 10 miles east of Palmer’s hometown of Latrobe, and he also designed the course. Even with Jack Nicklaus losing twice in singles the final day to Scotland’s Brian Barnes, the U.S. had little trouble retaining the cup.
J.J. Henry becomes first Connecticut native to capture the Travelers Championship
A third-generation golf standout from Fairfield, Conn., Henry broke through for his first PGA Tour title in 2006 at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell when it was called the Buick Championship. Henry had first played in the event on a sponsor exemption as an amateur in 1998 with his father Ronald on the bag. The emotional win propelled Henry to his only Ryder Cup appearance.
Augusta native Larry Mize wins the 1987 Masters
Not many players win a major in their hometown—or even have a chance—but Larry Mize did it in stunning fashion, beating two of the game’s best players in Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman in a playoff. When he chipped in for birdie on the 11th hole, the second in sudden-death, to shock the snake-bitten Shark, Mize leapt in the air and took all of Augusta, Ga., along with him. It’s one thing to be the toast of the town and another, when you play golf for a living, to be the toast of THAT town.
Bernhard Langer rebounds from 1991 Ryder Cup to win German Masters
Talk about feel-good, bounce-back wins. Bernhard Langer missed a six-foot par putt that enabled America to eke out a one-point win in the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island. One week later, in Stuttgart, he needed a 10-footer for birdie to force a playoff in the German Masters, and for a few seconds had trouble blocking out the disappointment from the week before. He made the putt and then beat Rodger Davis on the first extra hole. Not just Germany but the whole golfing world applauded his resilience.
Seve Ballesteros, Europe win Ryder Cup in Spain
Ballesteros, who was one of continental Europe’s contributors in the seminal 1979 Ryder Cup, eventually became the face of the European team, and he is still its icon. When the matches visited Valderrama, Spain, in 1997, Seve was a master manipulator behind the scenes as well as out front, and despite the addition of Tiger Woods, the U.S. fell short by a point against an inspired European squad that was simultaneously getting long in the tooth but also fielded five rookies. Seve willed them to that win.
Amateur Gene Littler beats the pros in San Diego
A native of San Diego, Littler won 29 times on the PGA Tour, but his first victory came in the 1954 San Diego Open at Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club when he was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion. “Gene the Machine” as he was known because of his rhythmic swing, beat Dutch Harrison by four strokes in the forerunner to the Farmers Insurance Open. Talk about the perfect start to your career.
Jack Nicklaus wins his own Memorial Tournament … twice
A native of Columbus, Ohio, the Golden Bear founded the Memorial Tournament at what has become his signature design, Muirfield Village Golf Club, in 1976, and in its second year he won the thing—on a Monday due to a weather delay, of course. The victory was so meaningful that he nearly announced at the trophy presentation that he was retiring, but wife Barbara talked him out of it. He won it again in 1984, the penultimate title of his career. Only thing that could top it was another Masters. Which he captured for a sixth time in ’86.
Francis Ouimet puts American golf on the map
This list isn’t worth squat without the ultimate hometown, home course, homer victory. Francis Ouimet, a 20-year-old amateur, is responsible for what historians call “the great awakening in American golf,” with his playoff victory in the 1913 U.S. Open over British giants Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Ouimet lived next door to the Country Club and had caddied there, so he knew the layout well. Still, he was a massive underdog. The home crowd hoisted him on their shoulders when he beat the favored Brits in the 18-hole playoff, he made headlines across the country, and all of America rejoiced in the triumph.