AUGUSTA, Ga. — The third round of the Masters tournament began Saturday with a gusting wind that bedeviled the field and seemed to make the firm, already crusty Augusta National Golf Club greens more parched, speedy and vexing.
Then, just before 4 p.m., a rainstorm with the potential for thunder and lightning sent the golfers scurrying to the safety of the clubhouse. After a 78-minute suspension of play, players returned to a golf course that was far more forgiving with dampened, significantly slower greens. The wind had all but disappeared.
Sensing the reprieve, many in the field attacked.
Leading the charge was Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, who shot a sparkling 65 by playing his final eight holes in six under par. At 11 under par for the tournament, Matsuyama, 29, will take an authoritative four-shot lead into Sunday’s final round. Four golfers are tied for second: Justin Rose, who led the first two rounds, Xander Schauffele, Marc Leishman and the Masters rookie Will Zalatoris.
If Matsuyama, runner-up to Tiger Woods at the 2019 Masters and the tournament’s low amateur in 2011, can retain his lead on Sunday, he will become the first Asian to win the Masters.
Matsuyama said he felt relaxed during the weather delay because the last shot he hit before the suspension — a drive off the 11th tee — was his worst swing of the round.
“I thought I can’t hit anything worse than that,” he said through an interpreter. “Maybe it relieved some of the pressure. I did hit it well after the delay.”
That is an understatement. Matsuyama, who is ranked 25th in the world, put on a superlative display of ball striking that may someday make up much of the highlight reel of the 2021 Masters.
Matsuyama began Saturday with six successive pars and caught Rose with a birdie on the seventh hole. Then he poured it on, beginning with an approach to the elusive 11th green that resulted in a converted 12-foot birdie putt. Matsuyama’s tee shot to the tricky par-3 12th settled only eight feet from the hole for another birdie. After two successive pars, Matsuyama eagled the par-5 15th hole when his second shot — a towering, precise 5-iron — landed four feet from the flagstick. His birdie putt on the par-3 16th was even closer, and Matsuyama banged it home confidently. The 17th hole was more of the same after two exceedingly accurate shots from the tee and the fairway.
The most nervous moment Matsuyama had on the back nine was when he flew his second shot 20 yards over the 18th green, but a nifty bump-and-run pitch left a tap-in par putt.
After the rainstorm, Matsuyama conceded he “hit practically every shot exactly like I wanted to do.”
If Matsuyama wins on Sunday, it would be the second victory for a Japanese golfer on the grounds in the last eight days. On April 3, the 17-year-old Tsubasa Kajitani, who is from Okayama, won this year’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur tournament.
“It was fantastic,” Matsuyama said of Kajitani’s victory. “I hope I can follow in her shoes and make Japan proud.”
Matsuyama had seven PGA Tour and European Tour victories from 2014 to 2017. He said there were a variety of reasons he had been winless for the last few years, but noted that this year he began traveling with a Japanese coach, Hidenori Mezawa, which he called a “great benefit.”
“Things that I was feeling in my swing, I could talk to him about that, and he gives me good feedback,” Matsuyama said. “It’s like having a mirror for my swing. Hopefully now it’s all starting to come together.”
Before the weather delay, most of the second-round leaders played inconsistently or downright struggled. Rose, who began Saturday with a one-stroke lead at seven under par, opened with birdies on the first two holes but then had bogeys on the fourth and fifth. Rose rallied to shoot even par the rest of the way. Brian Harman, who trailed Rose by one stroke to begin his round, slumped to a 74 that left him at four under for the tournament.
The most roller-coaster outing was turned in by Jordan Spieth, who in the second round had moved to within two strokes of Rose. On the seventh hole on Saturday, Spieth sent his approach shot over the green, then flubbed a chip shot and hit an overly aggressive bunker shot that led to a double bogey.
He was in even more trouble on the next hole when his tee shot went so far left it appeared he was almost replaying the seventh. Buried in the woods, Spieth lofted an iron shot over a tall stand of pine trees that landed three feet from the eighth hole for an easy birdie. A chip-in birdie on the 10th hole followed, as did another at the 15th, but those successes were offset by the setbacks, and Spieth concluded with a round of 72, trailing Matsuyama by six shots.
Zalatoris seemed the most at ease as the third round began with a string of pars and a nifty birdie on the par-4 third hole. But Zalatoris, 24, did not appear to adjust well to the slower green speeds after the rainstorm, and missed several birdie putt attempts on the back nine to shoot 71.
Corey Conners, with a hole in one on the sixth hole, made the biggest early move up the leaderboard on Saturday to finish at six under par, just behind the gaggle tied for second.
Schauffele, who was grouped with Matsuyama, shot an impressive 68 and still had time to exchange repartee in Japanese with his playing partner. Schauffele’s maternal grandparents lived in Japan, and he said he has picked up some of the language.
Or as Matsuyama said of his conversation with Schauffele: “We didn’t get a chance to talk a lot, but when we did, we exchanged some good Japanese jokes and had a good laugh.”
Matsuyama and Schauffele are together again for Sunday’s final round, and are scheduled to tee off at 2:40 p.m. Eastern time.