Matsuyama and McIlroy set to pressure Pieters in Firestone finale
Belgian bomber should be clear favourite
Story so far
Thomas Pieters and Zach Johnson, who play the game of golf in totally different styles, are tied atop the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational leaderboard with 18 holes to play at Firestone Country Club, Ohio.
Pieters, one of the most powerful players in the world, was a 66-1 chance ante-post, while Johnson, a precision operator who relies on strong putting to be competitive, could be backed at 70-1. Both men are nine under par through 54 holes, one ahead of 300-1 pre-tournament rag Scott Hend.
Hideki Matsuyama is alone in fourth place, the world number three lurking menacingly, while Rory McIlroy is a further shot off the pace in a share of fifth. Open champion Jordan Spieth is tied for 16th spot, seven behind, while world number one Dustin Johnson is a further three shots adrift.
-9 Zach Johnson, Thomas Pieters
-8 Scott Hend
-7 Hideki Matsuyama
-6 Adam Hadwin, Charley Hoffman, Rory McIlroy
-5 Russell Knox
-4 Paul Casey
-3 Bubba Watson, Brooks Koepka, Daniel Berger, Kevin Chappell, Jason Day, Jimmy Walker
100-30 Z Johnson, T Pieters, 9-2 H Matsuyama, 11-2 R McIlroy, 14 S Hend, 16 C Hoffman, 25 A Hadwin, 50 P Casey, R Knox, 66 J Day, 80 B Koepka, 100 bar
Thomas Pieters was fortunate to take a share of the lead into round four – his birdie putt at the final hole was going like an express train and the Belgian suggested it might have rolled off the green had it not hit the back of the cup – but he had got a read off his playing partner and approached the job in ultra-aggressive fashion.
That is the Pieters way – all guns blazing – and the tactic worked well on the front nine in round three. This sweet-swinger roared to the front and his iron-play has been absolutely awesome all week, before he faltered slightly in a three-bogey back nine.
Pieters has been missing a lot of drives to the left and will need to straighten up off the tee for the final round, but it is still a surprise that bookmakers do not make the Ryder Cup star clear favourite.
The game of Pieters is different class to that of Zach Johnson these days and the layers appear to be putting too much stock into experience and victory totals.
Pieters did not fret about a lack of experience when winning four points on his Ryder Cup debut last year. And it was the same story when he finished fourth on his Masters debut in April. The 25-year-old is a dude who takes everything in his stride.
Pieters will probably be 30 or 40 yards ahead of Johnson on every par four or five today, and the American needs to maintain his superb short-game work to be competitive. Johnson has putted this week like the champion who has won a Masters and an Open Championship, but he needs to on a giant track like Firestone given his long-game shortcomings.
Johnson is winless since the 2015 Open, while Pieters has won three European Tour titles since then. Johnson has 12 US Tour titles to his name, which is his most significant edge, but Pieters should be close to that number when he reaches the same age.
Pieters should be favourite and 100-30 is a decent price about this class act, but Hideki Matsuyama and Rory McIlroy seem likely to have a say in matters, too.
Matsuyama's weakness over short putts haunted him again with a couple of missed tiddlers midway through round three, but the Japanese ace has a superb temperament, quickly working his way back into the thick of things. The four-time US Tour champion and 2016 WGC-HSBC Champions victor should contend all the way to the finishing line.
McIlroy made plenty of clubbing errors in round three, exposed without a professional caddie on his bag, but Firestone sets up so well for him that he has remained bang in the hunt for a second Bridgestone title.
Pieters, Matsuyama and McIlroy may end up battling for Firestone glory on the back-nine, with the steadiness of Matsuyama, a Racing Post Sport ante-post selection at 20-1, perhaps proving the difference. Punters with a decent chunk on Matsuyama may choose to have some cover on Pieters.
Final-round twoball punters are pointed towards Pieters, who can boss Johnson in the final match (7.05pm UK and Ireland time).
McIlroy (6.35pm) and Matsuyama (6.55pm) can be fancied to account for Russell Knox and Scott Hend respectively, but neither are at a working man's price. The double pays almost 11-8 with bet365 and Hills.
3pts 11-10 bet365
R McIlroy (4-7) & H Matsuyama (1-2)
2pts double bet365, Hills