Tampa Bay Times

Matsuyama nears history at Masters, for Japan

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — The storms that stopped play for a little more than hour Saturday at the Masters were expected. The masterpiec­e by Hideki Matsuyama after the break was not.

Matsuyama played the final eight holes in 6-under par, turning a two-shot deficit into a four-shot lead. With four flawless swings and three putts late on the back nine at Augusta National, he went from part of a logjam on the leaderboar­d to the cusp of becoming the first Japanese player to win a major.

The final touch was a stellar par save from 25 yards behind the 18th green for 7-under 65, the only bogey-free round this week.

“I wouldn’t have believed it,” Matsuyama said through his interprete­r. “But I did play well today. And my game plan was carried out, and hopefully, (today) I can continue good form.”

It all started in his car, where the 29-year-old waited out the storm delay. Part of the time was spent playing on his phone, he said. He also thought about his last shot, a drive into trees right of the 11th fairway.

“During the rain delay, I just figured I can’t hit anything worse than that,” Matsuyama said. “And so maybe it relieved some pressure. I don’t know. But I did hit it well coming in.”

He was 11-under 205, four shots clear of Xander Schauffele (68), Justin Rose (72), Marc Leishman (70) and Masters rookie Will Zalatoris (71).

It was 10 years ago when Matsuyama first played in the Masters as the Asia-Pacific Amateur winner. He learned he could handle Augusta as the only amateur to make the cut in 2011, finishing on the same score (1-under 287) as defending champion Phil Mickelson.

Now comes the real test. “If Hideki plays well, he can control his own destiny, I guess,” Leishman said. “But a lot can happen around here. I’ve seen what can happen. I’ve had bad rounds here myself, and I’ve had good rounds. You can make up four shots fairly quickly, but you have to do a lot of things right to do that.”

Matsuyama did just about everything right, starting with his first shot after the delay — a 7-iron he punched under the trees and onto an 11th green slowed by the moisture to 20 feet for birdie.

After his birdie from 10 feet on the 12th, Augusta National came to life.

In a sequence that took no more than two minutes, Schauffele ran in a 60-foot eagle putt across the 15th green to momentaril­y tie for the lead at 7 under; back on the 12th, Rose made a 25-foot putt for his first birdie since the second hole, giving him the lead at 8 under.

That lasted as long as it took Matsuyama to cash in on his 5-iron to the 15th by making a 5-foot eagle putt to reach 9 under, his first time in the lead. And no one could keep up.

“I’ve been playing with the lead the whole week, and obviously there’s been an hour where Hideki has sort of moved out there in front,” Rose said. “All the guys chasing at 7-under par are all capable of that little run Hideki has had. So it’s all up for grabs (today).”

Matsuyama followed with an 8-iron to 5 feet on the par-3 16th for birdie, and his pitching wedge to the back pin on the 17 th had enough spin to settle 10 feet from the hole for another.

Corey Conners had a holein-one on No. 6 in his 68 and was at 6-under 210. Jordan Spieth was within two of the lead despite double bogey on the seventh, but he couldn’t keep pace and shot 72 to fall six behind.

Like he did Saturday, Matsuyama plays in today’s 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 the often quiet Matsuyama.

A victory would give Japan a sweep this week. Tsubasa Kajitani won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur last Saturday. “I wasn’t able to watch it. I was playing last week in Texas,” Matsuyama said. “It was fantastic. I hope I can follow in her shoes and make Japan proud.”

 ?? CURTIS COMPTON | Atlanta Journal-Constituti­on ?? Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, far left, and Xander Schauffele share a laugh after they both make eagle putts on the 15th green during the third round. Schauffele, a San Diego native whose mother was raised in Japan, speaks some Japanese, making for a comfortabl­e pairing with Matsuyama.
CURTIS COMPTON | Atlanta Journal-Constituti­on Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, far left, and Xander Schauffele share a laugh after they both make eagle putts on the 15th green during the third round. Schauffele, a San Diego native whose mother was raised in Japan, speaks some Japanese, making for a comfortabl­e pairing with Matsuyama.

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