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The Next One's Good

Why a caddie's bow had so many people talking

June 09, 2021

Photograph courtesy of CBS

Months have passed now, but it likely will remain one of the moments we remember from these tumultuous times.

While CBS played the theme song “Thrill of Victory” by E.S. Posthumus— you know it as “da-da-da-da da-da-dadah!”—at the close of the Masters and the video camera of Erik Leidel lingered on the final green, we saw the figure of Hideki Matsuyama’s caddie, Shota Hayafuji, walking back to the 18th hole as Jim Nantz said simply, “Matsuyama has won the Masters Tournament.”

Then an unexpected moment followed. Shota had just removed the flag from the flagstick, a tradition for the champion’s caddie, and returned the stick to the cup. With his back to the camera, he removed his green cap—and bowed deeply to the course.

Masters victory
we recall, but caddie bow
dwells in memory.

I was talking to Nantz about the moment just recently. He said in his opinion it was “the Shot of the Year,” and we almost missed it, but for the cameraman who lingered. One of the reasons it was so special was because Hideki had gone to get his green jacket, the photographers had all left, and the patrons were starting to scatter. Shota’s gesture was unscripted and authentic. (The only image of the moment was on video, reproduced here in a screen shot.)

a sign of respect
when nobody was looking:
we cherish this game.

The Caddie Network reported Shota’s emailed explanation. “My heart was full of gratitude, and it was the natural thing for me to bow and show respect to the Masters,” he wrote through an interpreter. “I was saying ‘Thank you very much!”

The outpouring of attention that “the caddie bow” received in America was exceptional. When so much of social media is snarky and negative, even conspiratorial, this example stood out as the opposite. To quote the low-handicapper Abraham Lincoln, “The mystic chords of memory when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Golf buddies called and texted wanting to talk about the caddie bow. Wherever I played, it was part of the golf conversation. It made us feel good about ourselves and our sport. It reminded me of another genuine moment captured by the same cameraman in his first Masters—the father-son hug between Earl Woods and Tiger in 1997.

I reached out to friends in Japan asking how the caddie bow was viewed in Hideki’s and Shota’s homeland. The response was surprising.

“Japan’s ancient history tells us that gods exist in every circumstance of our lives—mountains, woods, sea, house, playing fields,” says architect and rules expert Tai Kawata. “People are supposed to pay respect to those surroundings at all time. Caddie bow is nothing special.”

Nobuya (Mike) Ishizaka, who owns Golf Digest Online in Japan, adds, “With our sports, it is very common for athletes to bow before and after leaving the baseball field, a soccer or rugby pitch. We would also see many people bow each time they pass a shrine. Even some department store employees will bow entering and leaving the floor to go back to their offices.

“The whole ritual is ingrained in our upbringing and education. We consider places of work, sports and worship as sacred and therefore to be treated with a show of respect and appreciation for allowing us to conduct our activities there. Most people in Japan would consider the caddie’s bow unremarkable and very natural. As a people we do not take things for granted. After World Cup soccer, Japanese fans oftentimes are marveled at when we clean up the stands before leaving the stadium—it’s sacred ground. This show of respect may be something that the world could use more of.”

At times, there’s something poetic about the games we love. Matsuyama’s victory in a year of anti-Asian violence rates up there with the New Orleans Saints winning the Super Bowl after Hurricane Katrina. There’s also a graciousness in sport we all can learn from. We shake hands on the first tee and the last green regardless of the outcome, and sometimes a caddie bows. Sportsmanship is the universal sign of respect.