AUGUSTA, Ga. — The horn that sounded just prior to 4 p.m. Saturday was the signal for Masters golfers to clear the course, a break that was very welcome for some and far more frustrating for others, depending on where momentum was taking them. But, as if reclaiming its role as the perpetual leading man on this April stage, it was the course itself that was the story of the hour-plus pause.
From the angry, dry curmudgeon so good at turning Masters bounces into golfing tragedies, Augusta National took to a spring rain shower like a parched man in the desert, soaking it up like nectar from the gods. And by the time it was ready to welcome back the interlopers with clubs and bags, generosity reigned where stinginess had been. Moving day, as defined by the 78 minutes the players couldn’t move.
The primary benefactor of Mother Nature’s beverage was Hideki Matsuyama, the Japanese national who 10 years ago to the day accepted the silver platter as low amateur from then-Augusta chairman Billy Payne. He’d shot a pretty good front nine when the rain began, one birdie putting him at 5 under and two shots off the lead. But he took off across the back nine, a 6-under stretch that earned him the first round of 65 of this year’s tournament, and gave him a solid four-stroke lead heading into the final round.
An eagle on No. 15 capped a wild five-minute stretch that began with Matsuyama’s playing partner, Xander Schauffele, getting an eagle on the same hole only minutes before. That put Schauffele at 7 under and gave him a share of the lead with Matsuyama and Justin Rose, the leader after both the first and second rounds.
Before Schauffele could even enjoy it, however, Rose answered with a birdie on 12, retaking the lead at 8 under. But Matsuyama shut them both up immediately, his beautiful 205-yard approach shot leaving him with an easy 6-foot eagle putt.
At 9 under, the lead would remain Matsuyama’s the rest of the way, growing to 11 under by round’s end. He birdied 11, 12, 16, and 17, and, perhaps most impressively, saved par on 18 after somehow reaching the green from way down behind the pin.
“Thankfully for the rain I was able to put some spin on the ball and it checked up and got close to the pin,” Matsuyama said. “Before the horn blew I didn’t hit a very good drive but after the horn blew for the restart I hit practically every shot exactly how I wanted to.
“I spent the hour in my car just looking at my cell phone.”
CBS announcer Jim Nantz, who is covering his 36th Masters, said he’d never seen someone be that far away from the 18th green and still make it. But maybe that’s appropriate, since Matsuyama has been in position to break barriers for most of his golfing life.
From qualifying for that first Masters through the nascent global effort to grow the game (the Asia Pacific Amateur), he now has a chance to become the first Japanese man to win a major.
“This will be a new experience for me being the leader in a final round of a major,” he said. “The best I can do is relax tonight, prepare well, and do my best [Sunday].”
He will have to outlast a leaderboard that saw Rose’s par round keep him at 7 under but drop him into a four-way tie for second alongside Schauffele (68), Rose’s playing partner Will Zalatoris (71), and Australian Marc Leishman (70), who would love to repeat what countryman and then-playing partner Adam Scott did in 2013, sand win a green jacket.
It was Rose who’d been in the best position to do that across the tournament’s first two days, and as much as par kept him in neutral, some impressive up and downs down the stretch certainly kept him from falling backward.
“That recovery on 18, I did the same on 17 and the same on 15 and the same on 14 . . . pretty happy just to be able to walk into the clubhouse before I dropped another shot,” Rose said.
“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. You know, all the guys chasing at 7 under par are all capable of that little run that Hideki has had, so it’s all up for grabs [Sunday].”
For Schauffele, being paired again with the dialed-in Matsuyama was the best news of the day. With a few words of Japanese thanks to a set of grandparents who lived there for a while, Shauffele said he shared a few snippets of conversation with Matsuyama. But most of all, the two benefited from pushing each other, creating the tide that lifted both of their ships.
“It’s moving day. It’s Saturday. You want to play with someone who’s going to shoot 7 under,” Shauffele said. “You hope that it’s yourself, and if not you chase. You’d rather play with someone that’s shooting 65 than shooting 74. It was nice to chase after him.”