TOKYO -- It’s odd to have a home field advantage in golf. Outside of "the cups" -- Ryder, Presidents and Solheim -- a golfer playing in his hometown is as close as he can get, and even then he has to play well to take advantage of the crowds.
This Olympic competition isn’t the 1960 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, when a young Jack Nicklaus stepped into the lion’s den to and slayed Pennsylvania's favorite son Arnold Palmer in a playoff, but Xander Schauffele has put himself in position to at least call back that event.
Schauffele will take a one-shot lead into the final round of the men’s Olympic golf event over Japan's favorite son Hideki Matsuyama. The energy Sunday at Kasumigaseki Country Club won't even remotely match the 1960 U.S. Open, but don’t tell that to the slim number of Japanese staff who will be cheering for the reigning Masters champion to win a gold medal for Japan.
Schauffele is 14 under par after three rounds, the latest a precarious 3-under 68 where he struggled with his game, and particularly his driver, on a course set up to reward driving accuracy.
“Golf is funny, you kind of have to fall back on parts of your game when other parts aren't working,” Schauffele said. “I think I feel like yesterday I wouldn't say I was firing on all cylinders, but things were clicking kind of coming home and, man, was it a different day today. So, I'm going to try and get some better feels on the range going into tomorrow.”
The 27-year-old didn’t find a fairway until the 8th hole and hit only six fairways in Saturday’s third round. But he made the par saves when needed them and sprinkled in five birdies against only two bogeys.
“I think based on what we talked about last night I thought I did a pretty good job,” Schauffele said of staying patient. “Today could have gotten away from me, I could have had a bad attitude or whatnot, but hung tough, fell back on certain parts of my game to hold me tight.”
In the other corner, to use boxing terminology, sits Matsuyama. The 29-year-old missed the Open Championship due to a positive COVID test. His prep time for this week was limited, although it hardly shows given that he's made just three bogeys through 54 mostly impressive holes.
After making one of those bogeys on the 1st hole in the third round, Matsuyama rang up five birdies for a 4-under 67 that left him right on Schauffele’s heels.
“I definitely could not have believed it,” Matsuyama said through a translator. “To be honest, the endurance part of my game has been struggling a little bit, but it's held up, thankfully it's held up the last few days, so it's going to hopefully hold up tomorrow as well.”
Of course, with 18 holes to go, this is more than a head-to-head matchup. The leaderboard is filled with potential candidates to take home the gold medal, including Great Britain’s Paul Casey and Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz who are both 12-under, two back.
Ireland’s Rory McIlroy is three shots behind Schauffele, sitting at 11-under, and Great Britain’s Tommy Fleetwood and Shane Lowry of Ireland are four shots back at 10-under.
“You always want to -- you don't want to look at it too much, but I think this week it's like top 3 or nothing, right,” McIlroy said of watching the scoreboards this week. “In a way. So, yeah, you're taking peeks and glances at it and seeing how far off the pace you are. There's still 18 holes is a lot of golf still and a lot can happen. I need to go play a good round of golf tomorrow and see how it all unfolds.”
It will all begin with Schauffele, who hasn't won anywhere since the 2019 Tournament of Champions in Maui.
He's painfully aware of his victory drought and hopes to rectify it on Sunday.
“I haven't really been in contention in quite some time, so clearly being more patient and kind of hanging tight and not really letting too many things bother you has been helping,” Schauffele said. “So, I think tomorrow I've been in that position a few times now, which is always a good thing and I think the more I can get in that position the better I'll be, and I'll just have to fall back on some old experience tomorrow.”
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