Bubba Watson enters Saturday's third round of the 2014 Masters Tournament with a strong three-stroke lead, but there are plenty of elite golfers who are set to push him on moving day.
The key to conquering Augusta National Golf Club, though, is for players to focus on their own games and take on the challenging course on their own terms. That's easier said than done, as it's easy for those pursuing the green jacket to press the issue if they're in the hunt, only to become unraveled from the trouble that looms on any given hole at this major championship.
Calculated risk-taking, getting the proper breaks and making the most of mishit shots are all key to winning the Masters. Watson has an edge in that he won the event as recently as 2012, and the same can be said for reigning champion Adam Scott, who is just four shots off the pace.
A number of capable contenders making their debuts are not far behind, either, so Round 3 should be filled with surprises and drastic developments as the tournament approaches its Sunday conclusion.
The TV coverage of Round 3 begins at 3 p.m. ET and runs until 7 p.m. on CBS, per Masters.com. Here is a look at tee times, live stream information and predictions as to how the next 18 holes will play out.
|Time (ET)||Player 1||Player 2|
|10:15 a.m.||Rory McIlroy||—|
|10:25 a.m.||Jason Day||Joost Luiten|
|10:35 a.m.||Darren Clarke||Jose Maria Olazabal|
|10:45 a.m.||Miguel Angel Jimenez||Sandy Lyle|
|10:55 a.m.||Billy Horschel||Gary Woodland|
|11:05 a.m.||Chris Kirk||Martin Kaymer|
|11:15 a.m.||Oliver Goss||Francesco Molinari|
|11:25 a.m.||Nick Watney||Thongchai Jaidee|
|11:35 a.m.||Bill Haas||Thorbjorn Olesen|
|11:55 a.m.||Ian Poulter||Rickie Fowler|
|12:05 p.m.||Steven Bowditch||Brendon de Jonge|
|12:15 p.m.||Hunter Mahan||Justin Rose|
|12:25 p.m.||Vijay Singh||Bernhard Langer|
|12:35 p.m.||Steve Stricker||Larry Mize|
|12:45 p.m.||Mike Weir||K.J. Choi|
|12:55 p.m.||Henrik Stenson||Stewart Cink|
|1:05 p.m.||Lee Westwood||Brandt Snedeker|
|1:15 p.m.||Louis Oosthuizen||Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano|
|1:35 p.m.||Lucas Glover||Matt Kuchar|
|1:45 p.m.||Kevin Stadler||Jamie Donaldson|
|1:55 p.m.||Stephen Gallacher||Russell Henley|
|2:05 p.m.||Jim Furyk||Kevin Streelman|
|2:15 p.m.||Fred Couples||Jimmy Walker|
|2:25 p.m.||Adam Scott||Jordan Spieth|
|2:35 p.m.||Thomas Bjorn||Jonas Blixt|
|2:45 p.m.||Bubba Watson||John Senden|
|11 a.m. - 1 p.m.||On The Range|
|11:45 a.m. - 6 p.m.||Amen Corner video coverage|
|12:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.||Hole Nos. 15 and 16 video coverage|
|12:30 p.m. - 7 p.m.||Featured Groups 1 & 2|
|3:30 p.m. - 7 p.m.||Masters In-Depth live video coverage highlights|
All content viewable at Masters.com
*Live stream coverage also available at CBSSports.com.
Masters Rookies Begin to Run Thin
Just getting into contention after 36 holes in one's Masters debut is an achievement in and of itself. Six players making their first appearances in competition at Augusta National are under par—well within reach of the green jacket.
But this course can dash a player's hopes so quickly. Each day brings about new conditions, constantly swirling wind directions and brand-new pin placements where local knowledge helps a ton. Those factors will cause at least some rookies to fall by the wayside.
Among the ones who should remain in the hunt are American golf's next big hope in Jordan Spieth and FedEx Cup points leader Jimmy Walker. Spieth is just 20 years old but has the composure of a wily veteran and the all-around game to keep his impressive maiden run at Augusta going strong.
Now, Spieth has achieved another goal of his—not bad for a player who had no status on the PGA Tour entering 2013—per Golf World:
Jordan Spieth: "A big goal of mine, and I keep repeating it, is to get into contention at a major." He's T-3 after 36 at #TheMasters.— Golf World (@GolfWorldUS) April 12, 2014
While Walker is a Masters newcomer, he is a player who has risen into elite company as of late, winning three times in the 2013-14 PGA Tour season. The 35-year-old is backing up his strong campaign by getting to two under overall thus far, just one off of Spieth's 36-hole number.
Both have been striping the ball, matching Watson's proficiency in greens in regulation, per Golf Digest's Mike O'Malley:
Leaders in greens in regulation: Horschel 29 of 36; Bubba, Spieth, Jimmy Walker 28; Stadler, Couples, McIlroy 26.— Mike O'Malley (@GD_MikeO) April 11, 2014
The top first-time performer is Jonas Blixt (-3), whose exceptional putting should allow him to hold up well on Saturday playing alongside veteran Thomas Bjorn.
All the others—Kevin Stadler, Russell Henley and Stephen Gallacher—are at one under and don't quite have the pedigrees that those in the aforementioned trio do. As unpredictable as this tournament promises to be the rest of the way, it would be a shock to see any of them with a legitimate chance at Masters glory after moving day.
Penultimate Pairing Produces Stellar Results
The majority of attention will rightly focus on Watson and John Senden in the final pairing, along with the dream duo of Scott and Spieth. Sandwiched between will be Blixt and Bjorn, who should be happy to fly under the radar in that context.
Similar to how Marc Leishman came out of almost nowhere to contend in 2013, the same will continue to hold true for Blixt, who missed two consecutive cuts before he took the initial trip down Magnolia Lane.
Blixt has not had a good season, but he's found his game at the perfect time. Even a double bogey in the thick of Amen Corner at the par-four 11th on Friday didn't derail him. He calmly capitalized on the par fives, birdieing Nos. 13 and 15 to salvage a round of 71.
Although his experience in golf's biggest events has been limited, the majors have been rather kind to Blixt so far, per PGA Tour Media:
.@jonas_blixt is making his third career start in a major (T26/2013 Open Championship, 4/2013 PGA Championship).— PGA TOUR Media (@PGATOURmedia) April 10, 2014
As for Bjorn, he has won 15 tournaments on the European Tour and has finished second in three previous majors. Not only does he know how to seal the deal, but Bjorn is also due to win a major title.
Dan Jenkins of Golf Digest noted how Bjorn seems to pop up at random in the big tournaments:
Thomas Bjorn, who seems to come out of hiding every decade, is the leader in the clubhouse at three under par.— Dan Jenkins (@danjenkinsgd) April 11, 2014
It would be an excellent story for a player who has battled adversity and near-miss heartbreak at the majors to continue to fight back and excel at golf's highest level.
Watson Remains Leader Through Round 3
Augusta is playing so tough right now, and there is such a mixed bag of contenders with varying experience that it's hard to make a case for anyone outside Scott to pass Watson.
For Watson, who has just two bogeys, this is an unprecedented hot start to a major, per ESPN Stats & Info:
First time in Bubba Watson's career he has opened a major championship with consecutive rounds in the 60's.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 11, 2014
Even a level par round of 72 on Saturday would likely see Watson retain a one-stroke lead at the top. There is plenty of logic to support that he can pull it off—including his own testimony, which reflects the proper mindset, as reported by Masters.com's Vartan Kupelian:
It doesn't matter if you won it 42 times in a row, you're still nervous about it. That's why I'm keeping my head down, just to stay focused on what I'm doing, not look at leader boards, just play golf. That's really what you're trying to do and what I'm going to try to do the next two days. It might turn out to be horrific, but at least I have that shot at it.
Watson hits the ball longer than anyone in contention, and he's capable of hitting all of the par fives in two. Those all have to be considered birdie opportunities. Plus, Augusta fits his eye well since it has so many dogleg left tee shots.
The go-to shot for Watson off the tee is a big cut. That type of ball flight often takes distance off for most players, but Watson's unique action and the way he generates power negates that. He ranks No. 1 on tour in club head speed, ball speed, distance to apex and hang time.
In other words, Watson hits the darned cover off the ball. Even though he can work it both ways with ease, his preferred shot shape is ideal for Augusta National. There's a reason he's won here before.
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As long as Watson's putter doesn't let him down and he continues to hold the reins back on himself in terms of attacking flags, he should do enough to maintain his lead with a score of 72 or 73 and be six or seven under entering Sunday.
It is conceivable that someone in the earlier groups could be on his game, deploy an aggressive strategy, post a premium number in the clubhouse and see the leaders fall back to him. Also worth noting is that Watson has never really been in this front-running position at a major, doing his most damage when coming from behind and having no choice but to take risks—and pulling them off.
Whatever happens with the other players, the conditions promise to get faster as Saturday wears on, where those near the top of the leaderboard will be under even more pressure to maintain their positions so they can have a chance on Sunday. That should lead to higher scoring averages later in the day, creating a more clustered competition and setting the stage for a ton of drama for the final round.
The man who rises from this deep field with the green jacket amid the tough Augusta setup will be a well-deserving victor. Saturday is the time for someone to rise to the occasion and make sure Watson doesn't run away with his second Masters title in three years, which he's most capable of doing.