A Favorite Son Rises
The 2021 Masters tournament is actually the second Masters in the last six months. The tournament began with the ceremonial opening tee shot with six-time champion, Jack Niklaus and three-time winner Gary Player being joined by 86-year-old Lee Elder, who made history in 1975 when he became the first black golfer to play in the event. Although Elder was not well enough to hit a shot, he was welcomed with enormous applause and waved his driver in recognition. It was a fitting tribute to a groundbreaking man.
As is so often the case, the leaderboard after the opening round was an amalgamation of players from around the world, as 9 different countries were represented by the players in top 20 positions.
The day belonged to Englishman Justin Rose who looked to be playing a different game than the rest of the field. The 40-year-old star who has been a frequent contender at the Masters fashioned a superlative 7-under 65 that left him four shots clear of his nearest pursuers. What made Rose’s round even more remarkable was that he was 2-over par after 7 holes before playing his last 11 holes in 9-under.
The two players tied for second at 3-under were Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and American lefty Brian Harman.
24-year-old American rookie Will Zalatoris was in unchartered waters in a group of players a stroke behind after a 2-under par 70. Joining him at 2-under were fellow Americans Webb Simpson and 2019 Masters winner Patrick Reed. Unheralded 26-year-old South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout completed that quartet.
A shot behind at 1-under were South Korea’s Si Wo Kim, along with England’s Tyrell Hatton, Ireland’s Shane Lowry and American Jason Kokrak. Also in that group was a resurgent Jordan Spieth who won last week’s Valero Texas Open capturing his first win in 4 years. The writing though has been on the wall for Spieth as we documented a few weeks ago https://www.birdgolf.com/the-comeback-kid/
Seven players were at even par but such is the helter skelter test of Augusta National that any player within 6 shots of the lead going into Sunday’s final 9 can win.
Rose was unable to continue his electric play in Friday’s second round but an even par 72 still left him in charge heading into the weekend.
Rose was one clear of Harman and Zalatoris who were at 6-under and who continued to play well despite not having much experience on a stage like this.
Australian Marc Leishman, who also has a penchant for Augusta was one of the big movers of the day with a 5-under 67 that left him at 5-under and in a tie for fourth with Spieth who crafted a 68.
Other big movers who all fired 6-under 66’s were American superstar Justin Thomas and Tony Finau (would this finally be his time?) and Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger that left them tied for 6th at 4-under. They were joined on that number by Matsuyama, Kim and up and coming young American Cameron Champ.
54 players made the halfway cut at 3-over leaving the six players tied in 47th place within ten shots of Rose’s lead. History would remind you that anyone who makes the cut has a chance to win the Masters.
Grey overcast skies and rain greeted the players on Saturday, which actually helped to make the golf course play easier than it had for the first two days. After a weather delay suspended play for an hour, the course softened and the players pounced on the chance to attack Augusta.
The biggest leap was made by Matsuyama who recorded the first bogey-free round of the tournament en route to a superb 7-under 65 that separated him at 11-under heading into Sunday, four shots clear of his nearest pursuers. The brilliant 29-year-old Japanese star has had several close calls in Major Championships but if he were to prevail on Sunday, he would become the first Japanese male player to win a Major Championship. Matsuyama is a superstar in his homeland and is always under intense scrutiny from the Japanese press who follow him like a pop icon, so the pressure would be massive for him in the final round.
Rising US star Xander Schauffele (still the coolest name on the PGA Tour) shot a 4-under 68 to be one of the four players in a tie for second at 7-under. He was joined by Rose, Leishman and Zalatoris. Even though Augusta has a long history of huge lead changes going into Sunday, no player outside of the top 5 heading into the closing round has captured the Green Jacket since Nick Faldo won his first Masters in 1989.
Canada’s Corey Conners was one behind at 6-under. Spieth was alone in sixth a stroke back at 5-under followed by Harman at 4-under and Finau at 3-under. The winner would come from one of these 9 players but the 85th edition of the Masters, was Matsuyama’s to win or lose.
Matsuyama extended his lead to five over the surprising Zalatoris with a 2-under front 9 as the players headed to the back 9 on Sunday. With none of the other contenders able to mount any kind of challenge; Matsuyama at 13-under and Zalatoris at 8-under, it was really now a two player race.
But this is the Masters where no lead is really ever safe.
Schauffele had gotten off to a terrible start to his round and was 3-over for the day after his first six holes and seemed hopelessly out of contention. But the 27-year-old San Diego native had clawed his way back with five birdies in the next 9 holes to be 9-under and 4 behind Matsuyama as they played the par 15th hole. Matsuyama’s second shot flew the green and went into the water leaving him with a bogey six, which combined with a Schauffele birdie reduced the lead to two with three holes to play.
Schauffele then hit his tee shot into the water guarding the green on the par-3 16th hole and then air mailed his third shot over the green recording a disastrous triple bogey six, Matsuyama was back in control despite making a bogey of his own.
Two groups ahead, Zalatoris finished his round with a great save on his final hole to be the clubhouse leader at 9-under, but that was still two behind Matsuyama who had two holes to play. After a textbook par on the 17th by Matsuyama all he needed was a bogey or better on the 72nd to be crowned the champion.
Spieth and Schauffele finished in a tie for third at 7-under while Leishman and Rahm were one behind them, in a tie for fifth at 6-under.
Matsuyama created a little drama by finishing with a bogey on his last hole but it was still good enough to give him a 1-shot triumph over Zalatoris.
The enormous pressure that Matsuyama has carried with him during his 11 years as a professional is something very few people could understand. Throughout all this time though he has remained humble and gracious and is one of the best liked players on the Tour. In creating history, Matsuyama has become a legend and it is so well deserved.