Moving day? Matsuyama’s day. In proving how even a brief delay in a tournament – in this case 75 minutes – can totally shift its complexion Hideki Matsuyama emerged to leave the remainder of the Masters field grasping for air.
He now sits 18 holes from the making of history; as the first Asian winner of the Masters and the only Japanese man to win a major. A decade ago, Matsuyama won low amateur honours at Augusta. Since then, his best finish has been fifth in 2015; a repeat of the closing round of 66 as pieced together then would be more than sufficient to seal what would be the greatest achievement of his career.
Matsuyama’s third round of 65, which included just 30 blows on the back nine, afforded him a four-stroke advantage at 11 under par. Matsuyama was merely part of the conversation before an eagle at the 15th, backed up by birdies on his next two holes.
Arguably the finest moment of Matsuyama’s day, though, came at the last. Having found X-rated territory behind the green with an adrenalin-fuelled approach, the 29-year-old found the touch of an angel to leave a tap-in par. “The rain allowed me to put spin on the ball,” said Matsuyama, rather modestly, later.
Matsuyama delivered the only bogey-free 18 holes of the 85th Masters so far. Quite simply, he adjusted better than any other player in the field to the late afternoon pause as necessary to dodge an electric storm.
Matsuyama spent said break in his car, playing games on his mobile phone. “I played well today,” Matsuyama said. “I just stuck to my gameplan. Hopefully I can do the same tomorrow.”
Xander Schauffele, Justin Rose, Marc Leishman and Will Zalatoris sit closest to Matsuyama. Rose rescued par at the last for a scrappy 72. Corey Conners is six under.
Jordan Spieth will rue a bogey at the 16th, which slid him back to five under par, and a birdie putt that lipped out at the last. The rejuvenated Texan delivered typically crowd‑pleasing moments with a magnificent approach from pine straw at the 8th and chip-in at the 10th but such steps forward have been offset by aberrations. He trails by six after a 72.
Justin Thomas, for so long a contender, completely unravelled with an eight at the 13th. A 75 left him 10 shy of Matsuyama. At plus two and having shot 75 on Saturday, Bryson DeChambeau’s race is run. DeChambeau may yet figure out Augusta but it remains firmly a work in progress.
Much earlier, Billy Horschel had earned online infamy with a moment which – to his credit – he was perfectly happy to chuckle about. With bare feet and white trousers, Horschel slipped on his backside when approaching his ball, which was consigned to Rae’s Creek at the 13th.
Horschel’s mood was probably improved by the fact he dusted himself down to not only successfully chip from the hazard but save par. Phil Mickelson, Horschel’s playing partner, did manage to keep a straight face.
Horschel explained: “I said to Phil: ‘How bad is that grass stain going to be?’ and he said: ‘There may not be one there.’ Then he looked and said: ‘Yeah, there’s one there. Sorry, buddy.’ “I’ve ripped my pants on the course a few times and early in the rounds. There’s been some embarrassing things, and it happens. I don’t know, maybe it’s me and things I do means it just happens. I’m fine with it, it’s funny. You can’t laugh about it and have fun with it, it’s OK. I do a lot of that laughing on my own.”
Mickelson, who has produced the wonderfully unorthodox on golf courses for decades, was full of admiration of Horschel’s recovery from the creek.
“He hit one of the best shots I’ve ever seen,” said Mickelson. “There were two balls in the water that I was looking at, one was half submerged, one was fully submerged. I thought for sure his ball was the one half submerged. Nope. He went after that ball fully submerged and got that thing out. It was an incredible golf shot.”
Horschel’s 73 for a plus four aggregate means he will not trouble the leaders on day four. The same cannot be said for Mickelson, who surged up the leaderboard having signed for a 69. At level par, Mickelson cannot entirely be counted out of claiming what would be fourth Green Jacket, 17 years after the winning of his first. Should Matsuyama capitulate – he hasn’t won since 2017 – the tournament would be hard to call.
“I’ll need to shoot something in the mid to low 60s, but it is still fun to have a chance,” said the 50-year-old Mickelson. “You want that opportunity to do what Nicklaus did in ‘86 and shoot 65 to have a chance.” Never say never.