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Justin Thomas takes 2-shot lead over Hideki Matsuyama in Kapalua

Justin Thomas hits from the fifth tee during the third round of the Tournament of Champions golf event, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, at Kapalua Plantation Course in Kapalua, Hawaii. (Matt York / Associated Press)
Justin Thomas hits from the fifth tee during the third round of the Tournament of Champions golf event, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, at Kapalua Plantation Course in Kapalua, Hawaii. (Matt York / Associated Press)
By Doug Ferguson Associated Press

KAPALUA, Hawaii – Justin Thomas, who as a skinny kid in Kentucky had to hit driver to reach a par 3 in junior golf, stood on the 14th tee at Kapalua trying to decide if 3-wood would be enough to drive the green on a par that was playing 287 yards up the hill.

His caddie thought driver was the club, and Thomas took it from there.

“It needs to be something hot to run up there,” he said. “And I just nuked it, and hit it low and just enough to scoot up the ridge.”

The ball bounded onto the green to 20 feet, and Thomas made that for eagle . It was enough for him to take control Saturday at the SBS Tournament of Champions, ultimately leading to a third straight round of 6-under 67 and a two-shot lead over Hideki Matsuyama, who had a 66.

Perhaps it’s only fitting that those who will be in the final group.

Thomas, who was at 18-under 201, is the only player to beat Matsuyama over the last three months.

The 24-year-old from Japan has won four of his last tournaments dating to Oct. 16 at the Japan Open, a streak that includes seven-shot victories in Japan and at a World Golf Championships event in Shanghai.

Thomas beat him by three at the CIMB Classic at Malaysia, and Matsuyama wasn’t much of a threat that final round.

He is now.

“If I’m near Hideki in the tournament, that’s usually a pretty good thing on Sunday,” Thomas said. “He’s obviously a tremendous player and he’s on an unbelievable run here the last five events. I actually had no idea I was the only one to beat him in the last five events, which is absurd, the fact he’s won four of his last five. … But there’s a lot of great players out there. I just need to go take care of my job.”

There might not be as many players to beat in this winners-only field after Thomas gave himself a little separation. Only five players were within five shots of the lead going into the final round, with Dustin Johnson seven shots back and world No. 1 Jason Day eight shots behind.

Thomas was only mildly perturbed that his lead wasn’t greater.

Following his eagle on the 14th, he smashed another drive that caught the slope on the par-5 15th and rolled to the bottom of the hill, a 348-yard drive that left him only 180 yards to the elevated green. But his shot was a clunker coming out of the short rough, and while he hit a tough pitch to 6 feet, he read a fraction too much break in the putt and had to settle for par.

“I had 8-iron twice and made par,” he said of his week.

On the short 16th, he pounded another drive within 60 yards of the pin, but his wedge came up well short and he missed from 15 feet. He also looked back to how he closed out the front nine, with a soft bogey on No. 7 and missed birdie chances of 10 feet on the par-3 eighth and a 3-footer on the par-5 ninth.

“I’m definitely not disappointed with today, but I left a lot out there,” Thomas said.

Matsuyama made three birdies over his last five holes, starting with a chip-in on the 14th hole, to get into the final group as he goes for his fourth straight victory

“Justin doesn’t have any weaknesses at all in his game,” Matsuyama said. “He hits it long, has a marvelous short game, putts well, hits the ball well. We’ve got to go low tomorrow to be able to catch him.”

Memorial winner William McGirt, one of 11 players playing the Plantation course at Kapalua for the first time, played bogey-free for a 66 and was four shots behind, along with Ryan Moore (71) and Jimmy Walker (70).

Moore was tied for the lead until Thomas drove the 14th green for his eagle and Moore missed a 15-foot birdie putt. On the next hole, Moore’s tee shot plugged into the steep face of a bunker and he had no choice but to pitch out sideways, leading to another bogey.

Walker spent most of the gorgeous afternoon wincing over putts that kept burning the edges of the cup.

“Plenty of looks. Nothing went in,” Walker said. “That’s just kind of frustrating, especially the finish. I had a good look on 17, and then to not get that up-and-down on 18 is a bummer. … I’m hitting the putts the way I feel like I need to hit them. They’re just not going in.”

Thomas has won twice in his three years on the PGA Tour, both in Malaysia.

Jordan Spieth, meanwhile, had another double bogey, this one on his second hold. He ended with a three-putt par on the 18th for a 70 and was 10 shots behind.

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