Matt Jones shuffled awkwardly and painfully in his seat as he spoke to the media after a third round 68 to take the Australian Open lead by three. Then quickly denied his back could be one of the only obstacles to claiming a second Stonehaven Cup at his home club.
The long-time Australian Golf Club member appeared to wince and grab at his lower back on multiple occasions during Saturday’s third round. However, when questioned on a potential injury Jones was understandably unwilling to divulge too much information, with the chasing pack of American Cameron Tringale (10 under), World No.14 Paul Casey, Japanese amateur Takumi Kanaya and South African Louis Oosthuizen (nine under) looking for any benefit as they seek to deny Jones another home ground win.
“No, it’s fine,” Jones said of his back. “It’s nothing I haven’t dealt with plenty of times in my life. I’ll be fine.
“It’s something I’m sure every golfer would deal with. We all have a bad back, but nothing that I can’t play with and play through.”
Jones withdrew from two PGA Tour events late in 2019 with no official reason offered to the public, and failed to start the Safeway Open in September before completing four rounds of the next three events. And while his back giving him further trouble will be a concern for the 39-year-old on Sunday, his play through what he agreed was primarily soreness on Saturday will buoy his hopes of taking home a third professional win in front of family and friends.
“Just to stay patient, give yourself opportunities. It’s the old saying, one shot at a time, which is kind of true. Just to play smart and give yourself birdie opportunities,” Jones said of his plan going into the final round. “I know the golf course. I know the breaks pretty well on the greens, which I feel very comfortable on putting and if something does happen like that, like it did in ’15, I’ll be comfortable enough and I won’t have to worry about it.”
2015, when he won his first Australian Open crown, saw Jones make a double and triple bogey on the front nine of the final day, but he managed to overcome the setback to pip Adam Scott and Jordan Spieth by one.
Similarly on Saturday at The Australian, Jones managed to bounce back from bogies at the fourth and 17th holes with five birdies on the easier back nine, his local knowledge of the course a likely advantage given swirling winds that the now Arizona-based Jones admitted even he was unfamiliar with.
“It’s just not a normal wind, I don't find out here from years of playing, the easterly is not a normal wind,” he said. “I find it normally a north or a south wind. So, you’ve got some side winds out there. It was just tricky because it kept going from east, then it went to northeast, then it went to southeast and it’s just tough to trust some of those numbers. It got Paul on number 9 where he hit a perfect shot and it came up in a bunker. It was tougher and the pin locations were tougher.”
Also making two bogies during his two under second round, American Cameron Tringale, who has never claimed a professional individual win, lies in second, three shots adrift of Jones.
Tringale’s 28 putts on Saturday where the most he has had all week, and as the once World No.55 continues to work out the subtleties of The Australian, he could prove a major threat to Jones if his putter remains hot.
Two of the bigger names in the field sit one further back at nine under, Paul Casey and Louis Oosthuizen signing for 71 and 70 respectively.
Casey alluded to Rod Pampling’s 61 at this very venue when Jones won in 2015 as a potential bright spot as he looks to chase down his former college teammate, however, the Englishman also praised Jones and suggested the tournament was his to lose on Sunday.
“Matt played fantastic golf I thought, really good stuff and if he plays like that tomorrow then I think he’ll probably be a bit too tough, because I’m too far back probably, but we’ll see. I played a wonderful round of golf on Friday; I need to try and replicate that tomorrow,” Casey said after making birdie at the par-5 18th to ensure his dinner tasted a little better.
Having led after round one, Kanaya is certainly not out of the conversation as he seeks a second professional win. The entire chasing pack surely inspired by the round of the tournament 64 recorded early on Saturday by Sydneysider Jamie Arnold.
Out early in the easiest conditions of the day, Arnold fired eight birdies and a lone bogey across the par-71 to sit at eight under par alongside Kiwi Denzel Ieremia, one shot in front of five players that includes Marc Leishman and another Australian member, Blake Windred.
“I pretty much hit it in the same spots, just on the back side I made some nice putts. I got a couple of bonus putts – one on 18, another one on 15. It was just making a few putts was the difference. It was just nice to see a couple drop,” Arnold said when assessing his round.
Although Arnold’s round will fill the chasers with confidence, a fairly benign forecast for Sunday plays into Jones’ hands, with a three shot lead meaning he won’t need too many birdies to take the title for a second time. That is if the back that he insists isn’t a problem holds up for another 18 holes.