Apr. 11—AUGUSTA — A weather delay Saturday may have been the best thing that’s ever happened to Hideki Matsuyama at the Masters Tournament.
He had just hit what he called probably his worst shot of the week off the 11th tee when the tournament was halted due to potential threatening weather approaching Augusta National Golf Club.
At the time he was 1 under for the day and 5 under for the tournament, two shots off the lead, and it looked like he may be in danger of dropping a shot from near the pine straw on the right side of 11.
He walked off the course and got into his car, spending the 78-minute delay playing games on his phone.
Then he walked back onto the course and took control of the Masters.
Matsuyama birded 11, igniting a stretch in which he played the final eight holes in 6 under. He’s alone in front at 11 under, four shots clear of the field heading into Sunday’s final round.
“During the rain delay, I just figured I can’t hit anything worse than that (drive),” Matsuyama said. “And so maybe it relieved some pressure, I don’t know, but I did hit it well coming in after the delay.”
His bogey-free 65 is a career-low in his 10th career Masters start, and it turned a three-shot deficit into a commanding lead.
“I would — maybe I wouldn’t have believed it, but I did play well today,” he said. “And my game plan was carried out, and hopefully tomorrow I can continue good form.”
Now he just has to hold on to that lead.
Justin Rose, who led after each of the first two rounds, shot his second consecutive even-par 72 and is in the group four shots behind. Xander Schauffele (68), Marc Leishman (70) and Will Zalatoris (71) are there with him as they attempt to accomplish a rare comeback at the Masters.
Only four times in tournament history has a 54-hole leader ahead by four or more shots not gone on to win, most recently Rory McIlroy in 2011.
This is the first time Matsuyama has slept on the lead at the Masters, or any other major. He was third heading into the final round in 2016 and eventually finished tied for seventh. The year before he finished fifth, his best result to date at Augusta National. He’s looking to become the first Japanese male golfer to win a major championship.
“This will be a new experience for me, being a leader going into the final round in a major,” he said. “I guess all I can do is just relax as much as I can tonight, prepare well and just do my best tomorrow.”
Matsuyama played a low approach under the trees to 19 feet on 11 and rolled in the birdie putt, then hit it to 10 feet on 12 for another birdie. That tied him for the lead, but he was only getting started.
He hit a 5-iron from 205 yards to 6 feet for an eagle on 15 — playing partner Schauffele also eagled, and they’ll play together again in Sunday’s final pairing — to take the outright lead, then hit an 8-iron to 4 feet on 16 for another birdie. His pitching wedge approach on 17 settled to 10 feet for another birdie, and he saved par with a deft pitch from well beyond the 18th green to keep his scorecard clean.
The rest of the field will have to hope he makes a few bogeys Sunday. If it happens, it will likely be on the greens. Matsuyama is one of golf’s top ball-strikers but is often let down by a balky putter — he ranks 170th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained: putting.
Of course, if he keeps hitting his iron shots so close the putter may not matter.
“It was nice to chase after him,” Schauffele said. “He’s an incredible iron player. This is a great course for him. I think he has a great record out here at Augusta National, and obviously he showed it this afternoon.”
Schauffele’s 68 was one of the best rounds of the day, so he’ll be chasing after Matsuyama again on Sunday. Corey Conners also shot 68, including a hole-in-one at the par-3 sixth, and is five shots back at 6 under.
Jordan Spieth (72) is another shot back after another up-and-down day. Spieth, who tripled No. 9 on Thursday, added another big number with a double on No. 7, but made three birdies after that to stay in contention.
Plenty of others couldn’t Saturday. Brian Harman (74) was a shot back after 36 holes but is now seven back. Si Woo Kim (74) and Bernd Wiesberger (74) went from three back to nine behind Matsuyama, and Justin Thomas (75) is 10 back after a rough back nine that included three bogeys and a triple.
Rose looked like he might be the one to make the big move Saturday with birdies on 1 and 2 to reach 9 under, but he promptly gave those back with bogeys at 4 and 5. He mustered just one birdie and one bogey the rest of the day, and he’s played his last 36 holes in even par after opening with a 65.
Rose said he struggled to adjust to the greens for a few holes after the rain delay before getting his speeds dialed in. He’s got a tall task ahead of him Sunday, but he knows how much can happen in 18 holes at Augusta National.
“I’ve been playing with the lead the whole week, and obviously there’s been an hour of golf where Hideki has sort of moved out there in front,” he said. “You know, all the guys chasing at 7-under par are all capable of that little run Hideki had, so it’s all up for grabs tomorrow.”