The old saying might have be to be fine-tuned.
The Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday? Well, maybe the Masters already was finished during the back nine on Saturday.
The outlier breaking that Augusta National golden rule was Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama. There was a three-way tie for the lead at one point during the afternoon, and the leaderboard as a whole was knitted tighter than a golden sweater. After a 75-minute storm delay, Mount Matsuyama erupted.
He birdied 11. He birdied 12. He eagled 15. He birdied 16. He birdied 17. Matsuyama brewed up a bogey-free 65 with a back-nine 30 that included a three-putt par at the 13th and a remarkable up-and-down for par at the 18th from beyond, well, from beyond where observers could remember anyone having played a shot.
When the shock subsided, Matsuyama held a four-shot advantage over four pursuers and turned what looked like a wild, traffic-jammed horse race into something of a one-man show (scores).
This Masters is almost Matsuyama’s to lose. Almost. We all know the saga of Greg Norman and Nick Faldo in 1996, when Norman took a six-shot lead into the final round … and lost. So, it is too soon to slip Matsuyama’s arm into one green sleeve, but his near-perfect closing eight holes and that lead make him the man to beat heading into Sunday’s finale.
Here’s where it gets even crazier. You thought Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas were going to duel for this Masters on the weekend? Not so fast. Thomas stumbled to a 75 after a disastrous triple-bogey at the 13th hole, where the shot he deposited into Rae’s Creek was … a wedge? It was a colossal blunder and probably the moment that ended his run. He is 10 shots back, and worse, there are 12 players in front of him.
Spieth, meanwhile, made a double bogey at the seventh hole, but he came to life when he chipped in for a birdie at the 10th. He couldn’t get any positive action going on the rest of the back nine. He three-putted from behind the green at the 13th for par; left an eagle putt at 15 short and in the jaws; and lipped out a 5-foot birdie putt at 18 that would’ve gotten him to within five strokes of Matsuyama.
This will not be a Spieth-vs.-Thomas affair on Sunday. It still turn could into Rose vs. Will Zalatoris, who played in Saturday’s final pairing. Rose saved par at the 18th to stay within four, and Zalatoris gamely held on to be a factor, as both were tied at 7 under. Both have ground to make up on the leader, however.
How far back is too far back? That will be up to Matsuyama. If he melts – and no one should expect that after his furious finish – just about everybody is back in the hunt. If Matsuyama simply shoots even par, it will take a 68 from Justin Rose, Xander Schauffele, Will Zalatoris or Marc Leishman to catch him. Spieth still would need to shoot 66.
You’re probably going to need a program (an obsolete paper item listing the players and their scores) to decipher who’s where and what’s what going into Sunday’s final round. The view from here:
Leader of the pack: Matsuyama caught fire with his irons when play resumed. He’d hit a so-so-drive at the 11th hole when the horn sounded, stopping play. After spending most of the delay in his car looking at his cellphone, he brought a sharp iron game back to the course. He hit it to 12 feet from the right trees at 11 for a birdie, stuffed it to 6 feet at No. 12; 5 feet for eagle at 15; cut a daring iron shot at the right-front pin on 16 to 4 feet; and dropped one over the flagstick at 17 to about 6 feet. They weren’t kick-ins, but he didn’t have to be hot with his putter to make those. At 18, hit pitch-and-run from way over the green bounced onto the putting surface and was tracking toward the cup, stopping about 18 inches away. That might have been the most impressive shot of the nine, in fact.
“After the restart, I hit practically every shot how I wanted to,” Matsuyama said via an interpreter. He added that having the 54-hole lead in a major will be a new experience for him. “All I can do is relax as best I can, prepare well and try to do my best tomorrow.”
Matsuyama has 13 professional victories, including five on the PGA Tour (the Memorial and the Waste Management Phoenix Open among them); he made it as high as No. 2 in the world ranking after a runner-up finish in the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills; and 10 years ago, he was in the Butler Cabin to receive a handshake and the low-amateur award from then-chairman Billy Payne. In short, he’s no fluke. Can he hold up in a major? Discuss …
Flower power: Rose, the 40-year-old Englishman, showed his toughness Saturday by holing some key putts, although he missed some, too. He was the early tournament surprise, opening a gaping four-shot lead with a 65 in the first round after having taken a month off following back spasms. The 2013 U.S. Open champion hasn’t gone away but paired with the big-hitting young Zalatoris, his punch looked lacking. After a birdie-birdie start, Rose made only one birdie on the closing 16 holes. He made a brilliant sand save from the bunker at the 11th but wasn’t able to reach either par 5 in two on the back nine and make birdies. Frankly, he looked better in the first two rounds … but he has won a major.
Doctor Z: The wild card in this Masters deck is Zalatoris, a former U.S. Junior Am champion who played college golf at Wake Forest. He’s a big hitter who played his way through the Korn Ferry Tour to the big show, where he has been impressive. If CBS host Jim Nantz tells the story about his NFL broadcasting partner Tony Romo playing with Zalatoris and predicting greatness for him one more time, an entire nation might scream. Point taken, Nantzy. He shot 71, not bad, but as he said, “I played well. I just didn’t get anything out of it.” Like all of the contenders, he benefited from quiet conditions after play resumed following the storm but also was baffled by the suddenly softer, unpredictably slower greens. Outlook? Don’t go to zzzzz on Dr. Z.
X marks this spot: Is this a Masters first that an X and a Z are on the leaderboard? Somebody tell Tony Romo to look that up if he’s not too busy doing beer commercials. Schauffele was part of the most exciting five minutes of Saturday’s Masters. At the 15th, he drained an unlikely 60-footer across the green for an eagle to share the lead briefly. Moments later, Matsuyama stroked in his short eagle putt to break two shots ahead. Then, Rose poured in a 25-foot birdie putt at the 12th to move one shot behind Matsuyama. Schauffele had been quiet all week, but he took advantage of the par 5s on the back nine, playing them in 3 under. Schauffele was part of the posse that unsuccessfully chased Tiger Woods to the finish in the 2019 Masters. Is he ready to win? Besides that Masters runner-up, Schauffele has finished second in the British Open and third in the U.S. Open. The 27-year-old San Diego State University alumnus has been knocking on the door, softly. He might turn up the volume Sunday.
Down under par: Leishman, a classic Australia ball-striker, has had three top-six finishes in the British Open and a fourth and a ninth at the Masters. He crept into second place with a four-birdie 70. He likes Augusta National and has played a lot of good rounds there, so you can’t rule him out. Unless you’re picking a winner based on who’s going to hole the most putts. Then, ehh, he might not be your guy. “If I can just keep hitting it the way I’m hitting it and get the putter hot, you never know,” he said. Excellent use of the word “if,” buddy …
Ace in the hole: Canadian Corey Conners is another superior iron player who would like to make a few more putts. He found a solution to that problem at the par-3 sixth, where he made a hole-in-one. Thanks to that ace, Conners was 4 under par through the first seven holes. He shot 68 and trails Matsuyama by five. Of course, he played hockey growing up and claims he was a pretty good center. Conners used 8-iron for the ace. “Pretty special moment,” he said. Only one thing could be more special on Sunday …
Rest in Spieth: At six shots back, it’s not looking good for last week’s Valero Texas Open champ. A couple of big numbers killed him. He tripled the ninth in the opening round, then doubled the seventh Saturday. Turn those into bogeys and, hey, he’s only three back. Now subtract Saturday’s three-putts and, well, you get the idea. Every golfer plays that what-if game. The rain really hurt Spieth’s chance. The greens suddenly were running at a slower speed and it nullified his super power, his putting, and he wasn’t able to hole enough putts to close the gap on Matsuyama. He will need to light it up in Sunday’s finale, and he has the putter to do it. So, you’re saying there’s a chance? Well, that depends upon what Mr. Matsuyama says.
Morning Read's Full Coverage of Day 3:
It's Hideki Matsuyama's green jacket to lose, by Gary Van Sickle
Weather delay turned this Masters on its ear, by Alex Miceli
Phil Mickelson claws back to even par and says he's still in it (seriously), by Steve Harmon
Masters total purse includes more than $2 million to winner
Round 4 tee times
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