Xander Schauffele clung on to a slender lead at the Olympics golf tournament on Saturday but will be challenged for gold by a high-class chasing pack, including Hideki Matsuyama and Rory McIlroy.
An epic final-round battle at the par-71 Kasumigaseki Country Club looks in prospect after American second-round leader Schauffele carded a 68 to be on a 14 under 199, just ahead of Matsuyama, who signed a 67.
“To be honest it hasn’t settled in just yet,” said Matsuyama about playing in the final group of his home Olympics.”But I’m going to focus on having fun and trying to play well.”
Schauffele was not satisfied with the way he played, despite going into the final day in gold medal position.
“I hit my first fairway on [hole] eight. That summed up my day. I need to go hit the range,” he said.
The third member of the final group Sunday will be Britain’s Paul Casey, who jumped into the medal positions after a five under 66 took him to 12 under par.
Schauffele played in the final-round pairing when Matsuyama won the US Masters in April and it did not end well for the American, who hit a triple-bogey six at the short 16th.
He was asked if that might prey on his mind on Sunday.
“You just had to bring it up, huh?” he laughed. “No, it’s all good. Hideki’s a great player, he’s our current Masters champion. I plan on wearing that jacket some day as well.”
Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz (69) is also on 12 under and will play alongside four-time Major champion McIlroy, who shot a 67 to be a stroke further back on 11 under, and Colombia’s Sebastian Munoz (69).
McIlroy clearly enjoyed playing in the company of Irish teammate and friend Shane Lowry, who is a shot further back after a 68.
“We had a really good week together. The atmosphere has been really relaxed and it’s been a sort of throwback to the amateur days, I guess,” said McIlroy.
Surprise first-round leader Sepp Straka of Austria is hanging on at 11 under par but he will see the imposing figures of Lowry and Tommy Fleetwood looming at 10 under par.
It could have been better for Lowry, had the Irishman not incurred a penalty at the 14th when his wayward drive got stuck up a tree.
“To be honest, I was very lucky to find it and lucky I didn’t have to go back to the tee box,” said Lowry.
“But it’s a bad break and something that I hope doesn’t cost me at the end of the week.”
Britain’s Fleetwood played himself into the top 10 and medal contention with a sumptuous 64, tied for low score of the day, to leave him just four shots behind the leader.
The tournament was rocked last week when Jon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau were forced to withdraw after testing positive for coronavirus.
But with the top 10 separated by only four shots there is no lack of star power looking to succeed Britain’s Justin Rose, who won gold on golf’s return to the Olympics in Rio in 2016.
Schauffele is the only member of America’s much-vaunted four-man team in the top 10, though British Open champion Collin Morikawa carded his best round of the week to move to a share of 17th place on seven under 206.
© Agence France-Presse