AUGUSTA, Ga. – What’s past is always prologue at the Masters.
Throughout the ages the names have changed but not the drama and Saturday’s penultimate round from Augusta National set the stage for the story that is yet to come. It’s an all-too-familiar tale at the year’s first major, hold on for nine holes, take whatever punishment the iconic course has in store for you before rounding the hill for a second loop filled with enough twists and turns to make memories.
It was all there on Saturday.
Justin Rose was leading to start a day Jordan Spieth correctly predicted would be “volatile,” and almost immediately the course flexed.
Rose was grounded by back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 4 and 5 as the winds gusted to 25 mph ahead of an approaching storm and Augusta National was only getting crispier. At the eighth hole, Justin Thomas hit a delicate chip from the mounds and moguls left of the green and sprinted to his golf ball to mark it before it trundled to who knows where.
It was one of those kinds of days.
Moments later officials posted the “weather warning” sign on the scoreboard, just as Jordan Spieth’s second shot at No. 8 was rattling around the pine trees. On cue, the horn sounded sending the field scrambling for shelter.
It was almost as if Mother Nature needed to exhale and after the 78-minute weather intermission, it felt as if another tournament had broken out.
Even with a welcome spritz and some calmer breezes it’s not as though Augusta National had gone completely soft, but it had set the stage for the kind of two-way traffic that makes the Masters such a study of emotional extremes.
Hideki Matsuyama – who leads at 11 under, followed by a four-ball that includes Xander Schauffele, Marc Leishman, Will Zalatoris and Rose at 7 under – birdied Nos. 11 and 12 to take a share of the lead about the same time as Thomas was beginning his march in the wrong direction with a wedge shot into the creek at the 13th hole and a putt that he left 8 feet short on his way to a snowman 8” the worst score at the par 5 this week.
“I just chunked it,” said Thomas, who played his way out of contention with a third-round 75. “I couldn't really lay it up to a number that I wanted to because of the shot I had to hit, and it was fine. I wanted to hit it up in the air a little bit, and I probably just got stuck behind it trying to lift it in the air, and I just chunked it.”
But what Augusta National takes from some, it gives to others.
In rapid order, Schauffele rolled in a 61-footer for eagle at the 15th hole to move to 7 under and into a four-way tie for the lead. A moment later, Rose broke free with a birdie at No. 12 to move to 8 under, but it was a short-lived advantage as Matsuyama rolled in his own eagle putt at No. 15 from 6 feet to move back into sole possession of the lead at 9 under.
“That's why this tournament is great. I think that's why it's a viewing pleasure for most,” Schauffele said. “I was happy to make my 60-foot eagle putt on 15. I knew Hideki was going to make his. I was just trying to stay in touch.”
He didn’t stay in touch. No one did. If Matsuyama goes on to claim Japan’s first green jacket it will likely be because of his handiwork in waning daylight Saturday. Following his eagle at No. 15, the 29-year-old added birdies at Nos. 16 and 17 for a four-stroke advantage.
“I get to 12 and look at the leaderboard on 11, and Hideki is at 9 [under]. Next thing you know, he's at 10. By the time I teed up on 14, he was at 11,” Leishman said.
Matsuyama’s third-round 65 matched the low round of the week and while there will be those who contend that he doesn’t have the putting chops to win at Augusta National that would be as misguided as it is statistically incorrect.
The average putting rank for the last 10 Masters champions is 18.5 and Matsuyama is currently tied for 13th in putting this week with a 1.59 average. The more common connection between champions is iron play and this is where Matsuyama shines. He’s fifth this week in GIR (72 percent) and 13th in proximity to the hole (38 feet).
“He's an incredible iron player. This is a great course for him,” Schauffele said. “I think he has a great record out here at Augusta National, and obviously he showed it this afternoon.”
It’s the two sides of Augusta National that makes Sunday so compelling. The sides that give and take with equal abandon and wildly entertaining swings. Even facing a four-shot deficit none of the would-be spoilers had any interest in conceding the title. Not here. Not on a course that has perfected the art of the back-nine charge.
“A lot can happen around here. I've seen it,” said Leishman, who was paired with Adam Scott in the final round the year Scott won (2013). “I've seen what can happen. I've had bad rounds here myself and I've had good rounds. You can make up four shots fairly quickly, but you have to do a lot of things right to do that.”
For those chasing Matsuyama an epic comeback doesn’t require a great deal of imagination, only a rudimentary understanding of the tournament’s history. The Masters invented dramatic lead changes and historic momentum swings. It happened on Saturday and it will likely happen again on Sunday.