While attention was sometimes elsewhere Saturday at the BMW Championship, Hideki Matsuyama and Dustin Johnson managed to grab the headlines at the end, as their steady play continued with matching 69s, good enough for a share of the third-round lead at 1-under overall.
“(Matsuyama) is hitting it fine. Obviously the golf course is difficult,” Johnson said. “We both… I felt like I played really solid. Obviously, he got off to a really good start and I didn’t, but I felt like I played really solid throughout the whole day.”
The pair will take a two-shot lead over three others at 1-over 211, including Adam Scott. Behind them are six players tied for sixth at 2-over overall, including Jon Rahm, who fired a third-round best 66 despite incurring a one-stroke penalty on No. 5 when he forgot to mark his ball.
“I’m proud of being able to maintain my composure afterward,” Rahm said. “I think the most important shot of the round was that second putt, the six-footer for bogey.”
Also tied for sixth is Rory McIlroy, who drew headlines of his own when he announced after the round that he and his wife Erica are expecting their first child any day now.
Though he is comfortably in the field at next week’s Tour Championship, McIlroy may ultimately opt to withdraw from the chance to defend his FedExCup title, depending on the timing of the birth of his daughter.
“I’m going to play in many more Tour Championships, but you only have the birth of your child once. That sort of trumps everything.”
Then there’s the always newsworthy Tiger Woods, whose FedExCup Playoffs run is in jeopardy after a Saturday 72 dropped him into a tie for 55th at 10-over. It marked just the third time in a non-major that Woods has opened with three straight rounds over par, and likely ended his 2019-20 campaign, which began with a win last fall at The ZOZO Championship. Woods needed a solo-fourth finish or better to make the season-finale at East Lake.
Not that Woods is alone in dealing with the tough conditions here at Olympia Fields, of course. Only two players enter the final round under par, almost unheard of in modern PGA Tour memory. The last non-major won with an even-par score was by Billy Mayfair at the 1995 Tour Championship, while Bruce Lietzke remains the last player to win a non-major with an over-par score, as he won the 1981 AT&T Byron Nelson at 1-over.
“It’s just difficult,” said Scott, who is second in the field in Strokes Gained: Putting. “Yesterday I think the greens were a little harder. A couple of them looked like they held a bit of water today but then others didn’t, so you had to be really paying attention to the color of the green and hopefully you pitched the ball in the right area, which was hard to know whether you were right or not.
“Generally keeping it under the hole is very difficult, so then you’re left with putts that break a lot and are very fast. You can’t expect to make them all.”
Only Matsuyama and Johnson appear to have such sort of expectation. Matsuyama leads the field both in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green this week as well as around the greens, a surefire recipe to erase what has been a three-year winless drought on Tour.
“Great start and then just had to hang on. Just tried to do what I could to stay in, and I was happy with how it went,” said Matsuyama, who opened with a 37-foot eagle at the par-5 opening hole before adding another birdied at the fourth. “Different wind today, the wind direction was different, so it played different, but very happy with how I played and how it went.
“I played great these three days, so I just need to hit the ball well tomorrow and putt well and see where I’m at.”
But Johnson is riding his own momentum after his dominating victory at last week’s Northern Trust. The FedExCup Standings leader joining Matsuyama at 1-under when both birdied the par-5 15th, good for Johnson’s first under-par round of the tournament.
“This golf course just demands different kind of shots and pars,” Johnson said. “It’s a completely different golf course, completely different conditions. It’s pretty easy to get into the mindset of 4-under is a good score.
“This is a pretty much a major championship venue, obviously, and the conditions, the way it’s set up, it’s playing just like a major.”