AUGUSTA: Hideki Matsuyama of Japan plays a shot on the 18th hole during the third round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Saturday in Augusta, Georgia. - AFP

AUGUSTA: With a new coach solving swing issues and reduced celebrity media stress this week, Japan's Hideki Matsuyama finds himself on the verge of a historic victory at the Masters. Matsuyama fired a seven-under par 65 Saturday, his low score in 37 career rounds at Augusta National and the week's first bogey-free round, to grab a four-stroke lead after 54 holes on 11-under 205.

About the only thing that's a mystery to him so far at Augusta National is what it would mean to his golf-loving homeland if he becomes the first Japanese man to win a major title. "I'm not sure how to answer the question," Matsuyama said through a translator. "All I can do is prepare well, try my best, and do the best that I can tomorrow."

Two Japanese women have won major titles, Hinako Shibuno at the 2019 Women's British Open and Chako Higuchi at the 1977 LPGA Championship. Two Japanese men have managed major runner-up finishes, Isao Aoki at the 1980 US Open and Matsuyama when he shared second at the 2017 US Open.

The only Asian man to win a major golf title was South Korea's Yang Yong-eun at the 2009 PGA Championship. Often feeling pressure from Japanese media, Matsuyama says a limited media contingent at the Masters due to Covid-19 concerns has helped ease his stress load. "Being in front of the media is still difficult," Matsuyama said. "I'm glad the media are here covering it, but it's not my favorite thing to do, to stand and answer questions. And so with fewer media, it has been a lot less stressful for me, and I've enjoyed this week."

Matsuyama, who hasn't won since the 2017 Akron WGC event, has seven top-10 finishes in majors, including his 2017 US Open effort that boosted him to a career-best second in the world rankings. But he hasn't found success lately until now, a change he partly credits to new coach Hidenori Mezawa. "This year has been a struggle. Haven't really played my best," Matsuyama said. "The last three years there have been different reasons why I haven't been able to win."

Matsuyama, 29, says he has recaptured the magic of his finest shotmaking. "This year, starting early in the year, I have a coach with me now from Japan. It has been a great help," he said. "Things that I was feeling in my swing, I could talk to him about that, and he always gives me good feedback. He has a good eye. It's like having a mirror for my swing and it has been a great help for me. We worked hard, and hopefully now it's all starting to come together."

Memories of Tiger

Matsuyama is on the brink of taking a dream green jacket after watching 15-time major champion Tiger Woods deliver glorious Masters victories. "I have a lot of great memories watching the Masters as a young boy. First time I watched, Tiger Woods was the winner," he said. "I was always dreaming someday I could play here."

He got the chance by twice winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, an event founded with help from Augusta National to develop golf in the region. "That experience really gave me a lot of confidence," Matsuyama said. "I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the members of Augusta National because I wouldn't be here today without them."

Matsuyama shot 68 in only his third round at Augusta at the 2011 Masters. He was low amateur and 27th in his major debut. "It's a round I'll never forget," he said. "It gave me the confidence that I could play here. I could play with professional golf as a career." That confidence got a boost when he went 4-under in Saturday's last four holes to seize the lead after a poor drive into the right rough at the 11th hole just before a rain delay. "I probably hit the worst shot I've hit this week," Matsuyama said. "During the rain delay, I just figured I can't hit anything worse than that."

After birdies at 11 and 12, he hit a 5-iron to six feet to eagle the par-5 15th, an 8-iron inches from the hole at 16 for birdie and a wedge to six feet at 17 for birdie. "The 5-iron at 15, by far probably, the best shot I've hit this week," he said. - AFP