AUGUSTA, Ga. — For the first nine holes on Saturday, the leaderboard at the Masters was crowded. Then, after a weather delay, Hideki Matsuyama blistered the second nine at Augusta National, shooting 30 on his way to a 7-under 65 in the only bogey-free round at this place this year.
So, can anyone catch him? If so, who?
We tackle the biggest questions heading into the final round at Augusta National:
How much did one hour of rain on Saturday change this Masters?
Bob Harig: It would be difficult to say it was anything other than huge. Matsuyama surged, and momentum stalled for Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. The latter two were in the thick of things when the horn sounded but could get little going afterward. Thomas played the last nine holes in 3 over par, including a triple-bogey 8 at the 13th hole that led to a 75; he said it was like playing two different courses. Spieth made a nice birdie at the 10th but could manage just one more to go with an offsetting bogey to post 72. Meanwhile, Matsuyama got hot, making an eagle and four birdies and adjusting better than anyone to softened conditions that seemed to confuse others while allowing him to excel.
Michael Collins: The delay changed everything — and didn’t change anything at all. Momentum isn’t easily quantified. What it did do was slow the greens. Matsuyama adjusted the fastest. If there weren’t a delay, would this have happened? That’s a movie for Disney to make about a parallel universe.
Wright Thompson: There’s a bit of post hoc ergo propter hoc (shout out “West Wing” fans) here, because it’s hard to know if Matsuyama’s surge was because of the delay or because of his comfort with the later holes. But it’s impossible to ignore his run when the rain stopped and he got out of his car in the parking lot, where he passed time scrolling through his phone. The hour of rain changed the Saturday round a lot, seems like.
Mark Schlabach: What was amazing to me was that some players like Matsuyama took advantage of the friendlier conditions and adjusted quickly. While other players such as Thomas, Spieth, Tony Finau and Justin Rose struggled to adapt to the slower greens. I don’t think there’s any question that the long delay slowed down JT and Rose and others, but they were all playing the same course. I do find it ironic that Matsuyama, who isn’t exactly known for his putting prowess, managed to figure it out better than everyone else.
Nick Pietruszkiewicz: Before it rained, Rose was at 7 under and held a one-shot lead. The course was lightning fast. When the players returned, they found an entirely different Augusta National. The place was receptive. Approach shots that hit and went over the green before the rains came now checked up. Downhill putts didn’t have to be an exercise in caution. And Matsuyama took advantage and put on a show. Is it fair to say it was all because of the rain? No. But … he was 1-under through 10 holes before the course changed. He played the last eight, all after the break, in 6 under.
Who on this leaderboard has the best chance of chasing down Hideki Matsuyama?
Harig: Xander Schauffele. He is the highest ranked at No. 6 in the world and a four-time winner who has contended in several majors, and he has the benefit of playing with Matsuyama. Being in that last group gives Schauffele an advantage, as he gets to see the player he needs to beat up close.
Collins: Schauffele. He is trending toward a seriously low round. Now that he’s in the final group with Matsuyama, he could be the one to put the most pressure on quickly if Matsuyama slips. Schauffele won’t be afraid of the moment.
Thompson: I’ll say Will Zalatoris, because I want it to be true. I’ve got no factual basis whatsoever for this, just a deep love of the underdog and a tendency to let feelings like that override logic.
Schlabach: I was tempted to take Schauffele before the tournament started but resisted taking the bait again. But the guy has to win a major at some point, right? He is too talented and has been there too many times to not have won at least one by now. He has seven top-10s in majors during his career, including top-six finishes in each of his U.S. Open starts. He finished tied for second behind Tiger Woods at the 2019 Masters and tied for 17th in November. Schauffele called the near misses part of the process. I think he is looking forward to being in the final group on Sunday.
Pietruszkiewicz: Logic, and most of the rest of this crew, says Schauffele. I’m with them. Though he doesn’t have a win here, he does have strong history: After a T-50 in his first appearance, he has had a T-2 and a T-17 in the past two. And Schauffele is one of the few inside the reasonable margin of four shots. Plus, an early birdie-bogey exchange with Matsuyama changes everything in a hurry.
Jordan Spieth escapes from trouble with an unreal shot from the trees to setup a birdie on the 8th hole.
Who among the top 10 on the leaderboard do you trust the least?
Harig: It is hard to go beyond anyone who is more than four shots back, because it is asking a lot to try to catch a player from so far behind. So among the four players who are at -7, the pick is Zalatoris, simply because this is his first Masters, and those who are here for the first time typically do not win. It’s been 42 years since such an occurrence, actually. Zalatoris has proved himself more than capable on this stage, tying for sixth at the U.S. Open and performing very well in his first appearance at Augusta National. But Sunday pins and Masters pressure is a lot to overcome.
Collins: Corey Conners. He isn’t hitting enough greens and is only putting OK. I have a hard time believing he’s the one who’s going to catch lightning in a bottle as opposed to crashing.
Thompson: Will Zalatoris. Sigh.
Schlabach: Dare I say Matsuyama? He hasn’t won in more than three years; his last victory was at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in August 2017. It is only the second time he has finished a major round with a lead; he shared the 36-hole lead at the 2017 PGA Championship and finished tied for fifth. What worries me most about Matsuyama, though, is his putter. He came into the Masters ranked 166th in strokes gained: putting (-.296 strokes). Clearly, he took advantage of the slower and softer greens after the rain delay and needed only 25 putts in the third round, which was tied with Abraham Ancer for fewest in the field. On Sunday, Augusta National’s greens will be firmer and faster, and pin locations will be much more treacherous. Plus, his nerves will be firing on all cylinders.
Pietruszkiewicz: I know last week’s win at the Valero Texas Open is supposed to make me feel more confident in Spieth. For some reason, it doesn’t. Did you see some of the places he hit it on Saturday? You can’t ask for the magic act too many times around Augusta National. Eventually, the big numbers show up — and he already has a triple and a double on the card this week. So, no, I don’t trust him.
How far is too far back?
Harig: Nobody is winning from more than six shots back. There are too many players to contend with even if Matsuyama struggles. That said, I like Justin Rose to shoot a low number, just as he did on Thursday. He struggled a bit holding the lead, shooting 72-72 after his opening 65. He is now four back, he knows and loves the course, and he is well aware he can put up a low number. And he likely will need to do so.
Collins: Spieth at 5 under is on the edge. Does he seem like a guy who’s ready to drop the second bogey-free round of 65 this week at the Masters? (That’s what Matsuyama did Saturday). If you answered yes, you’re either related to him or his caddie. Schauffele is the one I think is going to shoot 66 on Sunday and force Matsuyama to follow up his great Saturday round.
Thompson: I think 4 under is too far back and, with that reasoning, I think Spieth can make a Sunday charge. He has been on top, and to the bottom, and the process of climbing back up again — running into the strong headwinds of celebrity and expectation — has certainly brought toughness, self-awareness and confidence.
Schlabach: It’s probably six shots back if Matsuyama struggles and doesn’t make me look like a dummy. Spieth is the only guy with a green jacket and the only contender who has won in the past year, but he’s going to have to putt better than he has so far.
Pietruszkiewicz: History suggests only four players — Schauffele, Rose, Zalatoris and Marc Leishman — have a chance. They all stand within four shots of Matsuyama. No player has come back from more than four behind since Nick Faldo won the green jacket in the Greg Norman collapse of 1996. The last winner of any major from more than four shots back is Phil Mickelson at The Open in 2013 at Muirfield. But let’s go outside of logic. Why? Well, why not? So … remember how I said I don’t trust Spieth? Well, he’s also the one I think can make the Sunday charge and put some electricity into the place. He is the one who can make this reduced number of patrons generate enough noise that you’d think Augusta National was full. If anyone is coming from way back, it’s Spieth. So that means, my answer is, six shots back is the limit.
OK, who wins?
Harig: Schauffele is in a weirdly good spot. He has nothing to lose. Four shots is a lot to make up. He hasn’t won in more than two years despite giving himself several chances. He’ll need to hit a lot more greens than he did Saturday (11), but Schauffele certainly has the ability to shoot a low one — and might need some help from Matsuyama.
Collins: Matsuyama. He is not letting bad shots bother him and is drawing inspiration from Tsubasa Kajitani, the 17-year-old who won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur last week, right before this Masters opened.
Thompson: Matsuyama. He’s due and ready for the spotlight.
Schlabach: Schauffele. The guy is past due to win a major. He liked playing with red-hot Matsuyama on Saturday; he’ll especially enjoy chasing Matsuyama down on Sunday. I think Schauffele has learned from his mistakes in the final round of the 2019 Masters.
Pietruszkiewicz: Schauffele. He has been here before. He has come close. And being forced to be aggressive from the start might help. He has to play chase if he wants a green jacket. He posted 4-under 68 on Saturday. I think he goes a few shots lower on Sunday and wins.