Four years ago, at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, Hideki Matsuyama played extraordinary golf on the final round of the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. On that occasion he made 61 strokes (-9), equaling the court record to win the tournament by five. Such was the quality with which he played that day that he did not even have to strain to make very difficult putts. Matsuyama was 25 at the time and seemed destined to be one of the great players of his generation. But that was the last tournament that Matsuyama won. He played well again in the occasional championship, but the Matsuyama of that WGC in Akron never appeared again…. until the third round of this Masters.
Matsuyama once again showed his best version, becoming the brave samurai who fearlessly fired arrows at the elusive Augusta National flags. He had his reward. He made 65 strokes (-7) and with a total of -11 he climbed to the top of the board. He was also the only player not to bogey so far this tournament. If he won, he would be the first Japanese man to win a Major.
It is difficult to know if this extraordinary performance of the Japanese was the product of a casual alignment of the golf planets or if it is the expected result of a great effort and a lot of practice. Matsuyama has lived in the USA for almost 10 years, but his English is unusually very poor. Perhaps for this reason he was his own coach for many years. But a year ago he brought from Japan Hidenori Mezawa, an experienced teacher with whom he can communicate in his native language. Perhaps this magnificent return is the virtuous result of this new stage.
Starting at 2:40 a.m. (local) it will be seen whether or not Matsuyama is the same player from that heroic return in Akron.
The other side of the coin was the Englishman Justin Rose, who led the tournament until the beginning of the third round, and that was diluted in the second nine holes. He ended up signing a 72 (par) to be four strokes from the lead. Despite the difficulties, Rose showed enviable strength, as she did not have her best game. If it hadn’t been for an incredible ability to approach and putt from all sides on various holes, his luck would have been far worse. But there is an old saying that dogs who fight cars and golfers who make a lot of approaches and putts to save par always end badly …
Four strokes is not the biggest advantage he had to lift a second Sunday to claim victory at the Masters. Nick Faldo in 1996 came within 6 strokes of Greg Norman and ended up winning by five. But that was more Norman losing than Faldo winning. In recent years, the Englishman Danny Willett, in 2016, recovered five blows in the last lap to literally take the sack out of Jordan Spieth, who was the defending champion and the leader at the beginning of the lap.
Besides Rose with -7 there are three other good players looking with ambition at Matsuyama. American Xander Schauffele, Australian Marc Leishman, and rookie Will Zalatoris (USA). On paper it is obviously Shauffele who has the best chances.
Texan Jordan Spieth played the court very well in the third round, but unusually the putt, his weapon of choice, was poorly calibrated and did not give him joy. He made a pair on the court and at -5 is too far away for his fans, who are many, to cherish the hopes of a miracle.
The champion of this Masters will not come out of this group of seven players.
Far from aspirations were the three Latin Americans who made the cut. The best classified is the Chilean Joaquín Niemann who yesterday made 70 strokes (-2). “It was a very positive lap. Obviously doing -2 at Augusta is always a great satisfaction and it helped me keep moving up the board. Tomorrow I plan to continue like this and hopefully I can climb more ”, those were his optimistic words at the end. Niemann ties for 21st with court par.
Colombian Sebastián Muñóz made 71 shots (-1) in his round, which had three birdies and two bogeys. It ranks 38th with +2.
For his part, Mexican Abraham Ancer told us: “This was a frustrating round. I hit the braces very well and did not roll it badly on the greens, but I didn’t have many opportunities. I wanted to take advantage of this Saturday to get closer to the leaders, but it didn’t happen. ” Ancer finished his round with 75 hits (+3) which left him in 43rd place with a total of three hits over par.
At the opposite end of the board, Spaniard José María Olazábal, winner of two Masters (1994 and 1999), had not made the cut at Augusta in the last 14 years. At 55, that goal becomes increasingly difficult for him. However, in this edition that presented a court with firm and very fast greens, he gave it an opportunity and took advantage of it. “When the field is like this, I don’t have to stick five boards to the greens all day. It’s very nice to see Augusta play like this these last two days, it reminds me a lot of how we played her in the 80s and 90s. “
But beyond any tactic, Olazábal’s thoughts at the end of the third round turned to his great friend and compatriot, also the winner of the Masters, Seve Ballesteros, who died in 2011. He dedicated his performance to him. “I already know that passing the cut is nothing extraordinary, but I admit that I did nothing but think about him these days. Especially since Seve would have turned 64 on Friday. That’s why I played that day with the clothes he liked the most: dark blue and white. ” Olazabal said very excited.
Sunday dawned cool and cloudy in Augusta. But the forecast is good for the whole day. The storm that wet the field in the middle of the third round, and forced it to be suspended for an hour and a half, eased the difficulty of the greens, which today will surely be more accessible. The first start will be at 10 in the morning and practice at 8 is empty. The press room also looks deserted. Whether we see an unexpected drama or the triumphant march of an enlightened one, at the end of the day applause and a well-known ceremony will crown a new champion in Augusta.