AUGUSTA, Ga. – Hideki Matsuyama showed he could handle Augusta National when he first showed up as a 19-year-old amateur. Ten years later, the Japanese star put himself on the cusp of a green jacket Saturday at the Masters.
In a stunning turnaround after storms doused the course, Matsuyama had four birdies, an eagle and a superb par at the end of a 7-under 65, turning a three-shot deficit into a four-shot lead as he tries to become the first Japanese player to win a major.
“This is a new experience for me being a leader going into the final round in a major,” Matsuyama said. “I guess all I can do is relax and prepare well and do my best.”
Matsuyama was at 11-under 205, and no one could stay with him after the delay. It lasted 1 hour, 18 minutes because of dangerous weather and just enough rain fell that crusty Augusta National was a little more forgiving.
He hit what he said was his worst shot of the day right before the delay, a tee shot into the trees on the right. He punched a 7-iron out to 20 feet for birdie and was on his way.
The break brought the Masters to life, and at times it was hard to keep up.
Xander Schauffele ran in a 60-foot eagle putt across the 15th green to momentary join a four-way tie for the lead. Seconds later, Justin Rose holed a 25-foot birdie putt back on the par-3 12th to regain the lead. That lasted as long as it took Matsuyama to rap in his 5-foot eagle putt on the 15th to take the lead for good.
The entire sequence took no more than two minutes.
But after that, no one could catch Matsuyama. When the round ended, Schauffele (68), Rose (72), Marc Leishman (70) and Masters rookie Will Zalatoris (71) were all at 7-under 209.
Jordan Spieth was within two shots of the lead despite a double bogey on the seventh hole, but he couldn’t keep pace and shot 72 to fall six shots behind.
Matsuyama will play in the final group with Schauffele, a comfortable pairing. Schauffele’s mother was raised in Japan and he speaks enough Japanese to share a few laughs with Matsuyama during Saturday’s pairing.
That won’t eliminate all the pressure. His lone shot at a major was at Quail Hollow in the 2017 PGA Championship when he was one shot behind with three holes to play and missed a crucial par putt. He was in tears after that round, a player under enormous pressure in golf-mad Japan.
Matsuyama wasn’t the first Japanese star of his generation – that was close friend Ryo Ishikawa – but he is by far the most accomplished. Matsuyama has 14 worldwide wins, five on the PGA Tour. He has reached as high as No. 2 in the world.
He won the Asia-Pacific Amateur in 2010 that earned him a spot in the Masters the following year. He was the only amateur to make the cut, finishing on the same score (1 under) as defending champion Phil Mickelson.
A decade later, he is on the cusp of history. The only other player from an Asian country to win a men’s major is Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine.
Matsuyama wouldn’t have believed he could leave Augusta National on Saturday night with a four-shot lead. But he knew he was playing well, and he showed it. On a course that has played difficult all week, he delivered the first bogey-free round of the week.
The signature shot was his 5-iron to a left pin to 5 feet for eagle. Equally stellar was an 8-iron to the front right shelf on the par-3 16th to 5 feet for a birdie, and then his pitching wedge to 10 feet behind the hole on the 17th. His work still wasn’t through.
From a fairway bunker on the 18th, Matsuyama sent it soaring over the green and up the walkway toward the clubhouse, some 25 yards to the hole with little margin for error with a back pin. His chip bounced with enough spin to trickle out to 3 feet for par.
It was reminiscent of Spieth closing out his third round in 2015 with a tough par save on the 18th to take a four-shot lead into the final round. That’s what Matsuyama has on Sunday, with a nation watching.
He rarely can go anywhere on the PGA Tour without a dozen or more Japanese media following. Their numbers are limited this year because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
“Being in front of the media is still difficult. It’s not my favorite thing to do,” Matsuyama said through his interpreter. “It’s been a lot less stress for me. I’ve enjoyed this week.”
A victory would give Japan a sweep this week. Tsubasa Kajitani won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur last Saturday.