Justin Thomas, hunting his third PGA Tour victory, seized a two-shot lead after the third round of the SBS Tournament of Champions in Hawaii on Saturday but has the game’s hottest player, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, in close pursuit.
Co-leader overnight with fellow American Ryan Moore, the long-hitting Thomas eagled the par-four 14th and finished in style with a birdie at the last, where he two-putted from just short of the green, for a six-under 67 and an 18-under total of 201.
Thomas is seeking his first PGA Tour title on U.S. soil after claiming his first two wins at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia but will have to contend with Matsuyama in Sunday’s final round at the Kapalua Resort on the island of Maui.
Matsuyama, who has four victories in his last five starts worldwide, was alone in second place in the elite 32-man, winners-only field after firing a superb 66 that included five birdies in the last nine holes.
One factor in Thomas’ favour is that he is the only player to have beaten Matsuyama during his sizzling run of form, having triumphed by three strokes over the world number six at the CIMB Classic in October, but the young American is taking nothing for granted.
"It's nice to be able to give yourself an opportunity in the first event of the New Year but there's 18 holes left and Hideki's the hottest golfer in the world right now," Thomas, 23, told Golf Channel.
"I'm glad he had a little time off or else I wouldn't have liked my chances going into tomorrow," he said with a laugh.
Matsuyama is competing this week for the first time since he won the Tiger Woods-hosted Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas a month ago.
"But he's still obviously playing great so it's going to be a great test ... I just need to go out there and do my job," Thomas said.
Thomas broke clear of a congested leaderboard with a birdie at the par-four 12th, where he hit his second shot from 100 yards to within two feet of the flag. He then moved two strokes in front with his eagle at the 14th, reaching the green off the tee and rolling in a curling 22-footer.
Matsuyama, aiming to become the first Japanese player to win back-to-back PGA Tour titles, maintained his victory bid with birdies at the 14th, 15th and 18th to earn a pairing with Thomas in the final round.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in St. Augustine, Florida; Editing by Andrew Both)