Saturday's third round at the 2014 Masters Tournament should see a slew of capable golfers aggressively taking on Augusta National Golf Club in a bid to chase down 36-hole leader Bubba Watson.
The 2012 champion has built a three-shot lead over John Senden thanks to a sensational back nine in Round 2, leading to a second straight score in the 60s and a seven-under par total. Course conditions have been fast and even firmer than usual, allowing Watson's combination of experience and power golf to ascend to the top of the leaderboard.
Live updates can be viewed above and will be updated throughout the day in Bleacher Report's golf content, and Masters.com will also be tracking what transpires on moving day.
Watson may prove to be hard to catch if he continues to strike the ball the way he has. However, one mistake can change the complexion of the tournament. If history is any indication, anyone at one-under or better has a chance to win, per ESPN Stats & Info:
76 of 77 Masters winners were within 6 shots of the lead or closer through 36 holes.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 11, 2014
Among the notables within that range are defending champion Adam Scott (-3), his 20-year-old playing competitor in Jordan Spieth (-3), FedEx Cup points leader Jimmy Walker (-2) and 1992 Masters winner Fred Couples (-2), along with several other stars.
Below is a breakdown of the top storylines entering the third round, which should provide an idea of what to expect in an event that promises to be almost unpredictable over the final 36 holes.
Polarizing Results for Past Champions
Watson and Scott still have a chance to earn the green jacket, but a lot of players didn't make the weekend cut—including the champions who preceded that tandem.
Charl Schwartzel, Phil Mickelson, Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman and Zach Johnson comprise all the other Masters winners since 2004 who began the week in the field. None of them will be around for the weekend.
Ideal weather has led to drier conditions at Augusta National, which has made putting even more difficult and getting up and down from around the greens a taller task than usual. The line is so thin in this tournament that missing in the right spots often separates the contenders from those who head home after just two rounds.
Experience at this venue can usually compensate for a lot of shortcomings or lackluster form coming in. There's no question that Watson and Scott have been playing better than anyone so far, though, and that revealed itself on a tougher Masters setup than usual.
Scott shot a three-over 39 on the front nine Friday before battling back to even par for the round. That speaks to an emerging trend for the Aussie at the majors in general, as ESPN Stats & Info points out:
Adam Scott is tied for 3rd through 36 holes at Masters. Scott has been in top 11 through 36 holes in his 6 of his last 7 majors.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 12, 2014
Making a minimal amount of mistakes is unusual, especially for someone as aggressive as Watson, but he's cruising along on the strength of five straight birdies in Round 2 from Nos. 12 through 16.
The big, perpetual surprise is the 54-year-old Couples. More than two decades removed from his glory at Augusta, he continues to be a fixture on the leaderboard in recent years. ESPN's Justin Ray highlights Couples' consistency:
When play ends today, Fred Couples will be the only player to be in the top-10 at the Masters after 36 holes each of the last 5 years— Justin Ray (@JRayESPNGolf) April 11, 2014
It's hard to pinpoint what to make of the mixed results from the past winners, other than how it is a testament to the magic of this course and just how hard it is to stay steady in the game of golf.
Masters Rookies Making Matters Easy in Debuts
A fact often alluded to throughout the week is that Fuzzy Zoeller was the last to win the Masters on his first try. A player could rise to the occasion to triumph on Sunday who has no prior experience at Augusta National.
The young man who is generating all the attention among Masters rookies is Spieth, who outclassed two fellow prodigies in Rory McIlroy (+4) and Patrick Reed (missed cut) in ascending to a tie for third through two rounds.
Spieth looked as though he'd had 10 Masters under his belt with the way he played, especially on Friday. Patience and a knack for knowing when to take his chances saw him post a two-under 70, peaking on the par-five 15th when he made an eagle.
Golf Central's official Twitter account noted the historical context of what Spieth has already achieved at age 20:
Jordan Spieth is the youngest ever to rank among the top 3 in the #Masters after 2 rounds.— Golf Central (@GolfCentral) April 12, 2014
The American phenom talked about how he's stayed so composed, citing the words of two-time Masters victor Ben Crenshaw, per Masters.com's Vartan Kupelian:
Mr. Crenshaw says it best: The Masters brings out emotion in guys that aren't emotional. I'm already emotional and I got to keep it on the down low. So I felt like if I could get my game right and really handle myself mentally, then I could have an opportunity to be in contention. That's where I'm at now and a lot of work to do.
Don't sleep on Walker, either. Already a three-time winner on tour this season, the late-blooming 35-year-old is hitting 75 percent of fairways and has missed just eight greens in regulation. If his putter gets a little hotter on the weekend, he should be right in the thick of things—and in line to make a charge on moving day.
Ray made note of just how exceptional Walker has been in the third round of tournaments during the 2013-14 campaign:
One to watch tomorrow: Jimmy Walker. Leads Tour in 3rd round scoring this year (67.7). 10 of 11 rounds under par. Combined -42.— Justin Ray (@JRayESPNGolf) April 12, 2014
A lot of Masters rookies are within that aforementioned six-stroke range of the lead, as Will Gray of Golf Channel observed:
Started the week with 24 #Masters rookies. 11 made it past the cut, and 5 are under par: Spieth, Walker, Gallacher, Henley & Stadler.— Will Gray (@WillGrayGC) April 11, 2014
One omission from that list happens to be Jonas Blixt, who will be in the penultimate Saturday pairing. He isn't all that well-known, but his profile would receive a massive boost the longer he hangs near the top of the leaderboard.
A two-time winner on tour, he has proved himself in the past—mostly due to having a hot putter. He took just 11 putts on the front nine during Thursday's opening round, and that stellar short game should keep him within striking distance.
It's also worth mentioning that Blixt was tied for 26th in his major debut at the 2013 Open Championship and was solo fourth at the PGA Championship. Don't underestimate him even if he isn't a household name.
Veterans Eager to Prove Worth in Chasing Green Jacket
For all the success Jim Furyk has achieved—2003 U.S. Open champion, 2010 PGA Tour Player of the Year and FedEx Cup champion, 16-time winner on tour—he has never worn the green jacket.
Which veteran will fare best in Saturday's third round?
A 15-time winner on the European Tour at the same age, Thomas Bjorn will play with Blixt in search of his first major. Bjorn's career has been filled with peaks and valleys—as well as the ultimate combination of those, with three runner-up finishes in major events. He birdied four of his last five holes on Friday to card a 68, vaulting into contention.
It would be easy to count both Furyk and Bjorn out since they aren't long hitters and will have more difficulty holding approach shots even from the best of positions in the fairway. In that same vein, they will both have more conservative course-management strategies, which could lead to others dropping shots in front of them.
Though Senden sports a less decorated resume than those two, his win at the Valspar Championship earlier this year and a vast improvement with the putter have him in line to fulfill his potential and possibly become the second straight Australian Masters champion.
All three of these 40-something wonders matched Watson for Friday's low round:
Jim Furyk matches Bubba Watson, John Senden and Thomas Bjorn for the low round of the day with a bogey-free 68. #Masters— Masters Tournament (@The_Masters) April 11, 2014
So there is a strong mix of players who have reached the ultimate Masters heights in the past, several upstart newcomers who are seeking to shatter the mold and savvy stalwarts who are knocking on the door ahead of moving day. The 2014 Masters is shaping up to foster yet another epic conclusion, and any of these golfers are capable of standing alone as the first major champion of the year.
If someone from the lower tiers of the leaderboard can post an early number in the clubhouse, conditions continue to dry and the course gets harder as Saturday progresses, the tournament field could be even closer together entering the 18-hole finale.
The Masters rookies seem keenest to fold as the stakes heighten, and even the more seasoned pros who are chasing their first green jacket are vulnerable to the crushing pressure. As tempting as it is to stick with Scott or Watson to remain on top, plenty of previous champions were unable to qualify for the weekend.
All bets are officially off at Augusta National. Seeing how these storylines unfold, along with the other unforeseen challengers who inevitably emerge on Saturday, will set up an excellent end to this tradition unlike any other.
Note: Statistics and video are courtesy of PGATour.com unless otherwise indicated.