Upon their return to play late Saturday, Masters contenders face softer, slower course that re-orders leaderboard for final round
At the Masters, the green-jacket clad members of Augusta National Golf Club usually form an omnipotent presence, and this week was no exception. They devised a course setup that rendered the club’s 20-under at the hands of 2020 champion Dustin Johnson as an anomaly.
Early this week, it was clear that the green jackets were winning. Course conditions were a major discussion early in the week, and scores in the first two rounds emphasized the difficulty, with no bogey-free rounds through 36 holes.
As the third round started, the course proved to be just as devilish, but rain interrupted play at 4 p.m. EDT. Phil Mickelson and Francesco Molinari shot 3-under 69s, which were the best scores to be posted before the rain. By 5:15, when play resumed, scoring had changed as 54-hole leader Hideki Matsuyama completed a bogey-free 7-under 65 with a 6-under back nine, and Xander Schauffele and Corey Conners shot 68s (scores).
Credit the weather and Mother Nature, which showed more control over Augusta National than even the green jackets.
With little time to adjust to the new conditions, some competitors had no issues playing a softer and slower course. Others, such as second-round leader Justin Rose, struggled to adjust. Rose needed some crafty par saves at the 14th, 15th and 18th holes to stay within reach of Matsuyama, four strokes back and in a tie for second place.
After a so-so drive on the 11th, Matsuyama heard the horn sound to stop play. At the time, he was bogey free but only 1 under for the first 10 holes. When he returned after the 75-minute delay, Matsuyama, traditionally a solid ball-striker and a streaky putter, made a 5-footer for eagle on the par-5 15th, which was sandwiched between four birdies in a 6-under 30 back nine. The homeward nine included a three-putt par at the 13th.
After the rain delay, many players left putts short. The scary-quick greens of the first 2½ days gave way to more docile conditions that changed the complexion of the tournament. Now, entering Sunday’s final round, Matsuyama holds a four-shot lead, with four players within four strokes of him.
“Just softer … softer and slower,” Schauffele said of the midround change in conditions. “The tricky part was probably hitting your putts hard enough. I think Hideki kind of was an example of that on 13. Hit a great iron shot in there. 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. It was a challenge in a different way.”
Matsuyama and Schauffele, who were paired together, eagled the par-5 15th hole by landing their approach shots on the green and watching their balls barely roll out. In the first two rounds, any ball that landed on the green typically caromed over the green, requiring a difficult pitch to set up a birdie chance.
“It was two rounds,” said Justin Thomas, who imploded after the weather delay with a triple-bogey 8 on the par-5 13th hole, effectively extinguishing his title chances. “I was playing great before the delay, and then I didn't afterwards. I mean, it's just a shame. I was really playing well. The golf course was playing very difficult, and I just couldn't adjust to the green speeds when I got back out. There was more to it than that, but I had a lot of putts that I missed that were short just because of how much slower the greens were. But, everybody had to adjust to it, and I just didn't do it as well as everybody else.”
If Matsuyama were to win his first major championship and the first one for a Japanese male golfer, he likely would look back to the second nine on Saturday as the catalyst. There are still 18 holes to go, with the weather forecast for Sunday’s final round in the mid-to-high 70s, with winds of 9-12 mph, gusting to 18, but no rain expected.
So maybe the green jackets will regain control Sunday. For most competitors, starting with Matsuyama, the nerves likely will be more of an issue, as they always are on the final nine at the Masters.
Morning Read's Full Coverage of Day 3:
It's Hideki Matsuyama's green jacket to lose, by Gary Van Sickle
Weather delay turned this Masters on its ear, by Alex Miceli
Phil Mickelson claws back to even par and says he's still in it (seriously), by Steve Harmon
Masters total purse includes more than $2 million to winner
Round 4 tee times
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