Who will be last man standing after wild final round at Augusta?
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Bubba Watson lost his touch with distance control, with short irons and putter, and thus lost his separation. Hence the landscape of the Masters shifted Saturday, from a chasm at the top to an interesting bunched-up pile of characters.
If you’re into theater, this tightening was as welcome as an intriguing twist in a B-grade plot. It’s as if the year’s first major received a needed B-12 injection and is headed to a dramatic finale with myriad possibilities. If the Masters were a meal, it might be a late November Thursday feast – never mind the absence of Q-rated Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Watson started Saturday ahead by three strokes on one man and by four on a quartet. But before he putted out at the 10th, he was in a four-way tie, a shot in front of two others. They say the Masters doesn’t start until the back nine Sunday, but it seemed we were a day ahead.
The uneven play of Bubba Ball led to a 74, a share at the top with 20-year-old Jordan Spieth at 5-under 211 and the tasty table setting. Watson had a chance to reinsert separation, but he kept leaving putts short and failed to birdie the par-5 13th and 15th despite using short irons on his second shots. He would have fallen further if nor for par saves at 17-18.
So we’re left with a situation where forecasting a winner at the three-quarters pole is more anyone’s guess than simple task. Thirteen players sit within four strokes of the lead, and it’s an eclectic mix, from age 20 to 54, from veterans to Masters rookies.
The collection starts with Bubba, the self-taught bomber and curver, and Spieth, the phenomenon who has a chance to become the youngest Masters champion and youngest major winner since Gene Sarazen bagged the U.S. Open and PGA at age 20 in 1922.
Matt Kuchar, significantly more dangerous than his rosy cheeks and permanent smile suggests, and Swede Jonas Blixt trail by a single stroke. Kuchar, golf’s foremost top-10 producer the past four-plus years, charged with a 68 and is in perhaps his best form yet. Not only is Kuchar coming off consecutive top 10s here, he had last-nine leads the past two Tour weeks before slipping. And while Augusta first-timer Blixt might not dominate your household conversation, he’s no slouch, having two Tour titles since autumn 2012.
Color is splashed all over the pair two strokes off the lead – Rickie Fowler and Miguel Angel Jimenez. Fowler’s clothes are so bright, you sometimes need sunglasses to watch him play. But, in rising with a 67 Saturday, he looked like he might actually wear green soon instead of resembling the kid at your door on Halloween.
Jimenez, aka The Mechanic, did him one better with a 66, low round of the week. You look at the 50-year-old Jimenez and think this: Stay thirsty, my friends. A high shelf of the Masters scoreboard doesn’t normally feature someone with a ponytail and potbelly, but there’s the Mechanic, doing it well his way.
You get the idea Jimenez’s idea of playing golf goes thusly: Hit a shot, take a puff off a cigar. Hit another shot, take a sip of red wine. Hit another shot, wink at your young girlfriend in the gallery.
The threesome at 2 under is nothing but experienced, a fraternity of fortysomethings: Lee Westwood, Jim Furyk and Thomas Bjorn. Westwood is showing he’s finally getting the hang of swing transition, and Furyk is showing a medium-length hitter can contend if he maximizes.
The only better winner story than Spieth would be Fred Couples, one of the four other men under par, at 1 under. Couples might be 54, but he’s still long off the tee, smooth in every way and moves around Augusta National as if it’s a chess board and he’s a grand master.
Spieth is at the other extreme. Even though it appears he doesn’t need to shave, the Texan has the look of a Masters winner – sometime if not this time. He plays with a hop in his step, as if he has lifts in his shoes, as if he has no fear. He putts as if he has no mental scars. He’s out there talking to himself, all if self-pump stuff.
He keeps moving barriers, and this would be the highest by about 10 stories. Last summer he became the first teenager to win on the PGA Tour in 82 years. The only other person with multiple U.S. Junior trophies is Eldrick T. Woods. And now he’s serving this, a continuation of a roll.
A large stage seems to draw the best out of the Spieth. He hardly trembles in the midst of greatness. He played with 14-time major winner Woods in the first two rounds of the Farmers Insurance Open in January and beat him by nine strokes. He played the first two rounds here with Rory McIlroy, who has won a pair of majors by eight strokes, and dusted him by seven. He drew defending champion Adam Scott in Saturday’s third round and whipped him by six, 70 to 76.
Only one Masters rookie, of course, has won since 1935 and none since ’79, largely because of course knowledge. Spieth has never seen greens this fast and firm, but he’s out there operating like he has played a dozen of these spring invitationals. He’s proceeding conservatively, shooting at the middle of greens and building confidence as he goes.
“My putter feels great and that’s leading to a lot of confidence rest of game,” said the kid who is so polite that he refers to past champions who have advised him as Mr. Nicklaus and Mr. Crenshaw.
If he happens to look at the current board, though, he should know that it’s dressed up a lot fancier than the day prior.