SHANGHAI — Hideki Matsuyama left the highlights to everyone else Saturday at the HSBC Champions.
All he cared about was keeping the lead.
In a third round that was dull by the standard Matsuyama had set for himself in making 19 birdies the opening two days at Sheshan International, the Japanese star picked up three of his birdies on the par 5s and rarely got out of position. Bogey-free for the first time all week, he was more than satisfied with a 4-under 68 to keep his three-shot lead going into the final round.
"The first two days, making lots of birdies, it's a lot of fun," Matsuyama said. "But today, when you're in a position to win, playing smart and making no bogeys was very satisfying for me."
Even more satisfying was that only four players were within five shots of his lead.
One of them was defending champion Russell Knox, who had far too much excitement in the middle of the back nine that kept his round together. Knox sandwiched birdies on a pair of tough par 4s around a par on one the third-easiest hole on the course, the par-5 14th. He hit into the water and was headed for a bogey when he made a long putt that kept his momentum and sent him to a 68 to stay three shots behind.
"After hitting in the water on 14, to make a massive putt for par was huge," Knox said. "Those little moments are what add up in a tournament. Could have been a lot worse."
Daniel Berger was another shot behind after quite the adventure over his final hour.
Berger ran off four straight birdies to get within two shots before taking bogey on the par-3 17th. Then he chose to go for the green on the par-5 closing hole, only to block it right into the water. He took his penalty drop, hit a full wedge into 5 feet and escaped with a par for a 67.
"That's what it's been like the last three days," Berger said about his scrambling. "To make bogeys on the last two holes would not be nice going into tomorrow."
Sunday might be no less daunting considering how Matsuyama has been playing — not just this week, but all month.
Matsuyama was at 17-under 199.
Francesco Molinari, who won the HSBC Champions in 2010, shot a 68 and joined Bill Haas (70) at 12-under 204.
Matsuyama finished fifth in the Tour Championship to cap off his most successful season on the PGA Tour, which includes his Phoenix Open playoff victory over Fowler at the start of the year. Two weeks ago, he won the Japan Open, then flew to Malaysia and was runner-up to Justin Thomas in the CIMB Classic.
Starting with his 10-birdie round of 66 to start the HSBC Champions, he has looked like the man to beat all week. No one got closer than two shots of Matsuyama in the third round, though the last hole was important to him. He hit driver down the right side of the fairway, along the edge of the lake, and then powered a 3-wood from 248 yards over the corner of the water to about 25 feet.
His eagle putt turned away at the end, leaving him a tap-in birdie that restored his lead to three shots.
Rory McIlroy tried to make a run and pulled off what he called one of the best short-game shots of his career for an unlikely birdie on the par-5 eighth. After sailing his 3-wood well right of the fairway on a thin patch of muddy grass, McIlroy faced a 50-yard shot over a creek with the pin on that side of the green. He hit a hard, low shot into the bank and it popped onto the green about 15 feet away, and he made the putt.
"One of the best up-and-downs of my career," he said.
That got him within four of the lead, but he began dropping too many shots to keep the momentum. McIlroy needed two late birdies to salvage a 37 on the back nine, and his 70 left him eight shots behind.
The shot of the day came from Matt Kuchar, minus the reward.
He made a hole-in-one on the par-3 17th, with a car perched behind the tee for whoever made an ace. Kuchar happened to read the fine print, however. Because the tee had been moved forward, there was a notice that the car would not be awarded Saturday because insurance only covered a tee shot of 200 yards.
"That was probably one of the saddest hole-in-ones I've ever had," Kuchar said. He shot 68 and was eight behind.
Matsuyama was quite happy to plod along with four birdies and no bogeys, and he wouldn't mind another day of that if it means becoming the first Japanese player to win a World Golf Championship.
"Everyone is so good. I know I'm going to have to make some birdies," he said. "But I think the key for tomorrow's round will be not making any bogeys."