AUGUSTA, Ga. — Saturday at the Masters was benign, then windy, then stormy, then calm, then rainy, then over. The leaderboard made sense and then suddenly didn’t. And as evening came to Augusta National, one man separated himself from the pack.
All afternoon, a mixed cast of characters with a wide variety of skill sets jockeyed for position, each vying to be the answer to the question that’s asked every Moving Day at Augusta: Who would sleep on the 54-hole lead?
Would it be Corey Conners? The Tour’s best Canadian started his day at two under but made three birdies in his first seven holes — oh yeah, and an ace at No. 6! — to move into a share of second place. Even with limited spectators on site, his hole-in-one roar echoed up the hills, sending a jolt of curiosity into the final pairings.
But Conners wouldn’t be your 54-hole leader. Birdies at 15 and 17 canceled out bogeys at 10 and 14, and a six-under total wasn’t enough to grab the clubhouse lead for more then about an hour. Still, he earned a spot in the third-to-last Sunday pairing, certainly close enough to make a final-round move.
“I’m notoriously a great sleeper, so I don’t think that will be a problem,” he said after his round. “I’ll just try and get ready to have some fun tomorrow.”
Would it be Tony Finau? He fit the description of likely contender this week; Finau’s in the prime of his career and at the very peak of his golf skill. He even got a motivational FaceTime from noted winner Tom Brady during Saturday’s rain delay.
Finau started the day at four under par and three shots off the lead. But he never improved on either number and finished the day with a disappointing 73. He’s solo ninth at three under.
“I’ve shot some low rounds out here on this golf course, so I’m going to need one of those tomorrow,” Finau said optimistically.
Justin Thomas was among the betting — and rooting — favorites entering the day. When he pulled off touchy up-and-downs for birdie at 2 and 3, it seemed inevitable that he’d be in the mix for the long haul.
But things changed suddenly just after the rain delay when Thomas, perhaps struggling to get a beat on the suddenly soggy golf course, made an 8 at 13 that included a block with driver, a wedge in the water and a three-putt. He went from two shots back to 10 by day’s end.
“It was two rounds. I was playing great before the delay, and then I didn’t afterwards,” he said post-round. “I just have to forget about it and try to do something historic tomorrow.”
Jordan Spieth’s third round got off to a typically rollercoaster start. Birdie at 2. Bogey at 4. A tournament-wrecking double at 7. A tournament-saving birdie at 8. A ridiculous chip-in at 10.
But Spieth stalled, too, playing even par the rest of the way home to finish off a round of 72. He’s five under, six shots back.
Nobody seemed to be keeping tabs on the day’s penultimate pairing, particularly when Brian Harman bogeyed three of the first four holes and dropped off the first page of the leaderboard. He steadied the ship but fell from obvious contention at four under. His playing partner, Marc Leishman, played a relatively quiet round: He birdied all four of the par-5s, bogeyed two of the toughest par-4s and made par on all the others. The result was a round of two-under 70 that got him to seven under — good enough for a share of second.
“You can make up four shots fairly quickly, but you have to do a lot of things right to do that,” Leishman said.
Saturday’s final pairing featured a contrast in experience levels, with 40-year-old former world No. 1 Justin Rose playing alongside Masters-rookie-plus-still-not-technically-a-PGA-Tour-member Will Zalatoris.
Rose made a statement birdie at No. 1 and opened up a three-shot lead when he birdied No. 2, too. But if he wants to win he’ll have to do so from behind; he scrambled for par more often than he putted for birdie and signed for 72.
Zalatoris started slower but held steady, even earning a share of the lead at one point on the back nine. His 71 bettered Rose by one, leaving the two men tied at seven under heading to Sunday’s final round. Both voiced optimism after their rounds.
“I think all in all, to have a shot tomorrow, I’m delighted,” Rose said.
“I’ve been wanting to do this my entire career, and I put myself in a pretty good spot,” Zalatoris added.
But after the rain delay, Augusta National’s magic seemed to shift to one group in particular: the pairing of Xander Schauffele and Hideki Matsuyama.
Schauffele missed greens and made par saves at Nos. 12, 17 and 18. He made birdie at No. 13 and drained in a bomb for eagle at No. 15. His round of 68 catapulted him into that logjam at seven under.
“I’m a huge fan of putting myself in position with nine holes to go,” Schauffele said, pleased after his round. “It wasn’t quite as nice as Hideki’s cleanup there on the last few holes, but I’ll take it.”
The “cleanup” he’s referring to? That’s because Schauffele’s run paled in comparison to that of his playing partner. When the rain stopped Matsuyama started stiffing approach shots, leading to birdies at 11 and 12.
“Right before the rain delay, I probably hit the worst shot I’ve hit this week,” Matsuyama said through a translator after his round. “And during the rain delay, I just figured, ‘I can’t hit anything worse than that.’ And so maybe it relieved some pressure, I don’t know, but I did hit it well coming in after the delay.”
That was the understatement of the day. He actually three-putted 13 for par — the greens had slowed significantly during the delay — but got up-and-down for par at 14 and then resumed sniping with his irons. At 15, he stuffed one from 205 to four feet for eagle. At No. 16, he hit it even closer for birdie. He made it three in a row at No. 17 when he knocked down another flagstick and finished off a 10-footer.
When Matsuyama finally did miss an iron shot, flying his approach shot some 25 yards over the pin at 18, he showed off his creativity, playing a clever low chip shot to two feet.
Having a hard time keeping track? We get it, so let’s review: All those birdies left Matsuyama with a back-nine six-under 30 that capped off a seven-under 65 and meant he opened up a four-shot lead heading to Sunday. It’s hard to imagine a better back nine of ball-striking nor a putter more solid to support it.
Good news for Matsuyama: On Sunday he’ll play with Schauffele again. More good news: He deftly dodged any questions about overnight expectations with one intentionally vague answer.
“I’m not sure how to answer the question,” he said. “All I can do is prepare well, try my best, and do the best that I can tomorrow.”
Matsuyama is 18 long holes from donning a green jacket, but he’s earned himself a four-shot cushion. It’s tough to hold onto a lead on Sunday at the Masters — but it’s even more difficult to overcome one.