PONTE, VEDRA BEACH FLORIDA – Hideki Matsuyama shot a 5-under-par 67 to shoot up the leaderboard from 36th and into a tie for second place after the third round of The Players Championship on Saturday.
On a day when only six players broke par, Matsuyama, who had seven birdies and two bogeys, switched putters and it helped him card one of the best scores on a firm TPC Sawgrass layout to move within four shots of leader Jason Day of Australia at 10-under 206.
Matsuyama started the third round 10 strokes adrift of Day, but he hit 16 of 18 greens Saturday and needed just 29 putts. The 24-year-old nailed three consecutive birdies from Nos. 1-3 and did it again from 10-12.
“The greens are surprisingly fast here,” said Matsuyama. “While everyone else was struggling I played better than I expected and I am surprised about that.
“My shots improved, but the putts went down for me and that was huge.”
Matsuyama said he hopes he can win the tournament and provide some joy for the people of Kumamoto Prefecture, which was rocked by a series of powerful earthquakes last month.
He is wearing two buttons on his hat to show support for his home country.
“As I watched the news on TV, and saw the devastation that took place, I thought I needed to do something,” Matsuyama said through his translator, Bob Turner, according to pgatour.com.
“(The buttons) are something as a Japanese citizen to show my support. Hopefully . . . if the folks back in Japan see the buttons and know that we’re thinking of them and care about them, hopefully it will make a difference.
“If I were to win, hopefully that would bring them some joy,” Matsuyama said. “And seeing them happy after the struggles that they have gone through would make me very happy also.”
Day saw The Players Championship at its easiest and toughest, all in the span of nine hours Saturday on what felt like two golf courses.
He set a record when it felt like a shootout.
He was even stronger when the TPC Sawgrass turned into a battle for survival.
And when a long, wild and utterly exhausting day was finally over, the world’s No. 1 player could take solace that he still had a four-shot lead.
“I want to say this was the toughest day I’ve ever had to play in my life,” Day said after gutting out a 1-over 73 going into the final round. “I want to win this tournament so bad. I really do. . . . But right now, I’m just trying to focus on trying to play well tomorrow. I mean, that’s all you could do is just try to survive.”
The difference between morning and afternoon was more like night and day.
Day finished his storm-delayed second round with a 66 to set the 36-hole record at 15-under 199, and it appeared he would take aim at more records. And then it all changed. The PGA Tour rolled the greens one more time. The wind picked up. The air dried out. The sun baked out the course.
Suddenly, the greens were like putting on glass.
Day four-putted from 18 feet for a double bogey. He made another double bogey two holes later. But right when it looked like he would fall victim to the fierce conditions, the 28-year-old Australian played the final 10 holes with three birdies and seven pars to reach 14-under 202 and keep his big lead.
More than excited about a chance to win the PGA Tour’s premier event, he is worried about facing similar conditions Sunday.
“That would just ruin everything,” he said. “That won’t make it fun for . . . we were out there for nearly six hours today trying to play 18 holes. They made the course pretty much nearly unplayable. If they do make it like that, then I’m just going to have to grind my hardest to win the tournament, and I’m OK with that.
“I won’t stop until it’s done, and I can rest after that.”
It wasn’t unplayable for everyone.
Ken Duke — in the round of a lifetime — made six birdies over his last seven holes for a 65, which was more than 10 shots better than the average score. He was tied for second with Matsuyama and Alex Cejka, who shot a 72 that felt much lower.
“I don’t know what they did to the golf course overnight, but it was playing like a U.S. Open,” Cejka said. “It was just lightning-fast greens.”
Sixth of the 76 players who made the cut had a double bogey or worse.
There were 149 three-putts — or worse — in the third round. Sergio Garcia took six putts from just off the sixth green. Paul Casey took five putts from about 8 feet on the 15th hole. There was rare a lag putt. The putts wouldn’t stop rolling.
“A 10-foot putt felt like it was 60 feet away,” Day said.
There was still the traditional trouble at the Stadium Course. Russell Knox hit three shots in the water on the island-green 17th and made a 9 that ruined his round (he shot 80) and his chances. Kevin Chappell had to play his second shot with his feet on the planks framing the water on the 18th hole. Having made two eagles, he closed with a double bogey to fall six shots back after a 70 that felt a lot better.
Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson and defending champion Rickie Fowler all missed the cut when the storm-delayed second round was completed Saturday morning. If there was a consolation, it was not having to take on Sawgrass and its scariest.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5