Hideki Matsuyama in action this week – photo Getty Images
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama put together a simply brilliant final nine of 30 on day three of The Masters and tomorrow faces the prospect of becoming the first Japanese male to win a major championship.
The 29 year old leads by four over Justin Rose, Marc Leishman, Xander Schauffele and Will Zalatoris, Rose unable to take maintain his 36 hole lead while so many others took advantage of the more benign conditions on day three.
Chiko Higuchi was the first Japanese golfer to claim a major title when she won the 1977 LPGA Championship followed by Hinako Shibuno who won the Women’s British Open in 2019 but the huge milestone of a first major for a male golfer has thus far eluded the golf crazy nation.
Matsuyama’s bogey free round of 65 included a run of 6 under under par over the closing eight holes and amongst that run was a 3-putt par at the 13th.
At one stage early in his round he trailed Rose by five after the Englishman had birdied his opening two holes but Augusta National has a way of giving with one hand and taking with the other and so it would prove as the weather disrupted round was played out.
“I wouldn’t have believed it if I had been told before the round I would have a four shot lead,” said Matsuyama. But I played very well and my game plan was carried out.”
Perhaps in an attempt to deflect the potential pressure Matsuyama played a straight bat when asked what it would mean to become Japan’s first male to win a major tomorrow. “All I can do is prepare well, try my best and do the best I can.
“I have a lot of great memories watching the Masters as a boy always dreaming that someday I could play here.”
It was simply phenomenal by Matsuyama and it continues a run of excellent performances at August National since his debut as an amateur in 2011.
That year, he earned an invite courtesy of his victory at the Asia Pacific Amateur Championship the previous year and not only did he make the cut he led the amateurs.
The following year he again made the cut as an amateur and in the eight starts since he has missed only one cut and been inside the top ten twice until this week.
Matsuyama has already recorded seven top tens in major championships and given his impressive record at Augusta it is no real surprise he is in the position he is at present. One of those top tens was when runner-up at the 2017 US Open, equaling the performance of his fellow countryman Isao Aoki when that golfer finished runner-up to Jack Nicklaus in 1980.
Matsuyama, though, has the advantage of a four-shot lead and a golf game that has improved sharply following a run of tournaments which has seen not one top ten in his last eleven starts.
Later, Matsuyama put his improving game in recent starts down to the involvement of a full time traveling coach, Hidenori Mezawa, and paid credit to his role in turning things around.
“This year’s been a struggle. Haven’t really played my best. The last three years, you know, there’s been different probably reasons why I haven’t been able to win.
“But this year, starting early in the year, I have a coach with me now from Japan. It’s been a great help, a great benefit. Things that I was feeling in my swing, I could talk to him about that, and he was giving me good — he always gives me good feedback.
“He has a good eye. It’s like having a mirror for my swing, and it’s been a great help for me. We worked hard, and hopefully now it’s all starting to come together.”
Leishman remains Australia’s hope after his round of 70 has him in a share of second place.
Leishman recovered from a mid-round hiccup to birdie the 13th and 15th and finds himself just four from the lead. He missed two very makeable putts at the 17th and 18th but he is well placed and he knows it.
“Obviously if Hideki plays well, he can control his own destiny, I guess,” said Leishman. “But a lot can happen around here. I’ve seen it. I mean, I played with Scottie the year he won. 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.
“He’s (Matsuyama) generally pretty steady. He’s a great iron player. You’ve just got to play good, it’s as simple as that. I’m not going to catch him if I don’t play well and make putts. I have to do my job. Whatever he does is up to him. That’s all I can do is what I can control, so hopefully I can control a lot of iron shots and birdie putts.
“But happy with the day, 2-under, four back going into tomorrow. If I keep hitting it the way I’m hitting it and can just get the putter hot, you never know what might happen.”
Cameron Smith recovered from a horror run in the middle of his round with two late birdies for a respectable 73 and finds himself ten shots from the lead but six shots out of second place.
Matt Jones had 74 to be at 1 over while Adam Scott continued his disappointing week with a round of 79 to be at 10 over and in last place of those who made the cut.