A slow-burning Olympic golf tournament roared to life on Saturday as Xander Schauffele fought off attacks to cling to a one-shot lead over Hideki Matsuyama heading into the final round with Britain’s Paul Casey in a tie for third.
The stage is set for a battle royale at Kasumigaseki Country Club on Sunday, with nine players within four strokes of Schauffele, including former world No 1 Rory McIlroy.
Overnight leader by a stroke, Schauffele was stalked relentlessly by his playing partners, Matsuyama of Japan and the Mexican Carlos Ortiz, but the American broke clear with a birdie on the 18th to record a 68 for a 14-under total of 199.
“It’s been a fun week. I’m in a good position heading into tomorrow,” Schauffele said after landing a sublime nine-iron three foot from the 18th pin for a tap-in putt. “Today could have gotten away from me if I had a bad attitude or what-not, but I kind of hung tough. I fell back on certain parts of my game to hold me tight.”
Matsuyama, who recently suffered from Covid-19, struggled off the tee through his four-under 67 but his brilliant short game saved him, and he drained a clutch putt for par on 18 to keep the heat on Schauffele.
Japan’s first major winner said he felt his nerves were not much different to his experience at the Masters, where he held a four-shot lead overnight before claiming a one-stroke win. “The fact that the third place is still celebrated as well as second [at the Olympics], there’s a nice thing waiting for you even if you’re third,” he said.
“So I’m not sure what my motivation going into tomorrow will be but I’m going to focus on playing good golf.”
Ortiz (69) is a shot further back in the bronze medal position alongside Casey (66), the Mexican ruing a bogey on a scrappy last hole where he lipped out on a short par putt.
McIlroy enjoyed a solid day out with Ireland teammate Shane Lowry in his group, shooting a 67 to be three strokes shy of Schauffele on 11-under. “I’ve got a great chance heading into tomorrow,” said the four-times major winner, competing for Ireland. “It’s a bit of a packed leaderboard, so all to play for. It’s going to be brilliant.”
Casey’s GB teammate Tommy Fleetwood also soared up the leaderboard after an inspired 64. Fleetwood racked up seven birdies in nine holes from the sixth to the 14th and is four behind Schauffele on 10-under with Ireland’s Lowry (68).
Australia’s Cameron Smith also raised his game on moving day, shooting a 66 to be nine under, but Collin Morikawa’s hopes of winning gold for Team USA faded. The American, fresh from winning the Open, rallied with a 67 to finish seven under but has a seven-stroke deficit on his teammate Schauffele.