Hideki Matsuyama pours it on after rain delay, shoots 65 to lead Masters

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Sam Farmer
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Hideki Matsuyama is congratulated by caddie Shota Hayafuji after shooting a seven-under 65 at the Masters on April 10, 2021.
Hideki Matsuyama, left, is congratulated by his caddie, Shota Hayafuji, after shooting a bogey-free, seven-under 65 in the third round of the Masters. He leads by four strokes at 11 under. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Pretty mundane way to spend a rain delay, sitting in your car and scrolling through your cellphone. But Hideki Matsuyama needed to clear his head Saturday after hitting his worst shot of the Masters, a drive on No. 11 that peeled so far right it wound up on a grass strip on the wrong side of the trees. Mercifully, officials blew the horn, signaling all players to leave the course with the possibility of lightning coming through.

What a time for a mental reboot.

Matsuyama resumed his third round 75 minutes later and was a new man. He played the final eight holes in six under par, turning in the first bogey-free round of anyone in the tournament and shooting a seven-under 65 to take a four-stroke lead at 11 under into Sunday.

It marks the first time a Japanese player has held a lead or co-lead after any round of the Masters, and Matsuyama is in prime position to be his country’s first man to win a major championship. Two women have done so.

“Before the horn blew, I didn't hit a very good drive,” he said through an interpreter. “But after the horn blew for the restart, I hit practically every shot exactly how I wanted to.”

Matsuyama hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since the 2016-17 season, when it happened three times, and his best finish in the Masters was fifth in 2015. The numbers are in his favor, though. There’s a four-way tie at seven under — Xander Schauffele, Marc Leishman, Justin Rose and Will Zalatoris — and no one in the last 24 Masters has overcome more than a four-stroke deficit heading into Sunday to win.

What’s more, it could play in Matsuyama’s favor that the media contingent is drastically reduced under COVID-19 restrictions.

“I'm not sure how to answer this in a good way, but being in front of the media is still difficult,” he said. “I'm glad the media are here covering it, but it's not my favorite thing to do, to stand and answer questions.”

Justin Rose watches his tee shot on the second hole during the third round of the Masters on April 10, 2021.
Justin Rose, who led after each of the first two rounds, watches his tee shot on the second hole in the third round. He shot an ever-par 72 and is tied for second. (Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

Matsuyama finished as the low amateur in the 2011 Masters and is looking to become the seventh golfer to achieve that and eventually win a green jacket. As noted by ESPN Stats & Info, the players who have done so are Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Cary Middlecoff, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia.

In the final round, Matsuyama will be paired with San Diego’s Schauffele, who shot a 68 on Saturday that included a 60-foot putt for eagle on No. 15 that briefly gave him a share of the lead. Matsuyama would reclaim it for good with a five-foot eagle putt on the same hole.

Schauffele, whose mother was raised in Japan, chatted and shared jokes with Matsuyama in Japanese during their round.

“I threw my few words here and there that I could,” Schauffele said.

The ultra-fast Augusta greens played softer and slower after the rain, Schauffele said, but that presented a different kind of challenge.

“The tricky part was probably hitting your putts hard enough,” he said. “Normally you'd kind of just touch your putt, it gets feeding down that hill and it's an easy two-putt. Now you're sort of looking down at the creek there and you have to hit your putt hard coming down the hill.”

Matsuyama’s most clutch shot came at the end of his round, when he flew the 18th green from a fairway bunker and wound up on a walkway toward the clubhouse. He hit a chip shot at least 20 yards back toward the hole, leaving himself a three-foot putt to save par.

“Thankfully for the rain,” he said, “I was able to put some spin on the ball and checked up and got close to the pin.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.