Augusta National Golf Club fostered favorable scoring conditions in the third round of the 2014 Masters Tournament on Saturday, and all it needed was 36-hole leader Bubba Watson to lose a little ground to set the stage for an exciting final round.
Watson had an up-and-down day and overcame a tough stretch on the front nine to salvage a two-over 74, allowing several formidable contenders to indeed narrow the gap at the top on moving day. Now the 2012 Masters champion is joined atop the leaderboard at five under by perhaps the game's next big superstar in Jordan Spieth.
A bogey at the first hole was redeemed in short order when Watson hit a majestic approach to the par-five second, setting up an eagle to get to eight under at the time:
That wouldn't last, though, as Watson felt the pressure of being a major-championship front-runner and bogeyed three of his next seven holes to create a jam-packed cluster of contenders. Shane Bacon of Yahoo Sports provided some colorful commentary, with Watson seemingly going in reverse as he lost his favorable three-shot lead entering Round 3:
CBSSports.com's Kyle Porter gave an idea of the putting struggles Watson had endured, which wasn't the case during the first two rounds:
Thanks to two clutch par putts at the final two holes, Watson averted outright disaster by earning a spot alongside Spieth in the final Sunday pairing.
Spieth, a 20-year-old American phenom, continued his sensational Augusta debut while playing alongside reigning Masters winner Adam Scott. Spieth fired a strong round of 70 to grab a share of the lead, while Scott missed a birdie on 18 as he stumbled to a 76 that put him at one over for the tournament.
Among the clutch putts Spieth holed Saturday was this birdie at the par-five 15th, set up by a nifty wedge approach that spun to within roughly six feet of the cup:
Spieth won the John Deere Classic last year as a teenager, made the Presidents Cup team and is already among the best golfers on the planet. That prompted this tweet from PGATour.com's Brian Wacker:
Tiger Woods isn't in the field this week, but he's sure to be talked about at length during Sunday's final round, because Spieth has the chance to eclipse Woods as the youngest Masters champion.
There are many elements that make Spieth a fascinating story. Even though he wears his heart on his sleeve, he manages to stay composed enough to compete on the biggest stages in golf. The prodigy has no big weaknesses, and his putting has helped his cause immensely on some blisteringly quick Augusta greens.
Ian Poulter fired a two-under 70 to get to level par overall, and after his round, he remarked how the dried-out course conditions have made the already lightning-fast putting surfaces even more difficult:
Josh Kendall of The State shared what Spieth had to say about the challenges he faced with the flat iron in hand on Saturday:
Local knowledge and experience is so vital at the Masters, which is what makes Spieth's early Masters success all the more mind-boggling. Golf Channel's Jason Sobel provided context, indicating that Spieth would be in just his junior season had he stayed at the University of Texas:
Spieth will have his work cut out for him, as plenty of decorated veterans are chasing their first Masters, and first major title. Matt Kuchar held the clubhouse lead before Spieth posted five under, and after just missing victories in each of his past two PGA Tour starts, Kuchar is in the hunt to win his maiden major following an excellent 68.
Kuchar has finished tied for third and tied for eighth in the past two years at Augusta, but he has never been positioned better for the green jacket than he is this year, per ESPN Stats & Info:
As easy as it is to fancy Kuchar's chances based on his recent form, those who are lurking within striking distance should be encouraged by this statistic from ESPN's Justin Ray:
Brilliant putting has Jonas Blixt at four under and tied with Kuchar after he held strong in the penultimate pairing, posting a 71 for the day. Blixt seems to have a knack for being a factor in majors despite his own limited experience, as both he and Spieth are shattering the perception that a first-time participant can't win the Masters.
This long-range birdie at the par-four ninth was among the many putts Blixt has holed:
The last man to win his first start at Augusta National was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, so there is even more history on the line for both Spieth and Blixt entering Sunday. Fox Sports' Robert Lusetich praised Blixt's short game, which kept the Swede in the hunt amid a turbulent back nine where he made just four pars:
Don't sleep on another young gun in Rickie Fowler, who made one of the biggest moves of the day and just missed birdie at the par-four 18th to settle for a five-under 67. With just one PGA Tour win under his belt, golf fans have expected more from Fowler at this juncture of his career.
A Masters win would certainly silence Fowler's doubters, as the work he's put in with renowned swing instructor Butch Harmon is paying evident dividends. Fowler has the firepower to make birdies in bunches, making him an ideal come-from-behind candidate to ascend to first in Sunday's finale.
Miguel Angel Jimenez was the only one to best Fowler's 67, doing one stroke better to vault from three over to three under as he bids for his first major at age 50. Sky Sports Golf pointed to the incredible driving accuracy Jimenez has enjoyed this week, making up for his lack of distance with premium precision:
Jimenez seems to think age is just a number, based on his post-round comments, per Sobel:
That seems to be the case at Augusta this time around. Whether it's Spieth thriving well before he's supposed to or Jimenez having more success than he should at this stage of his playing days, the 2014 Masters has proved that anyone from this deep, elite field of golfers is capable of winning.
Even the group at two under features Jim Furyk, a past major champion who has not won at Augusta, and Lee Westwood, who is in a perpetual hunt for a major. Either of them is capable of making some birdies early to apply pressure to the leaders.
For the first time in 20 years, neither Woods nor Phil Mickelson will be driving down Magnolia Lane with a chance to win on Masters Sunday. That hasn't stopped this 2014 tournament from being one of the most exciting through three rounds in recent memory.
It's hard to imagine that things could get more dramatic, but they will as the event concludes Sunday evening. Someone will be bestowed with the most coveted garment in professional golf. Watson has a great shot to win for the second time in three years, but Spieth has all the game in the world to come out on top.
This is what it's all about for golf fans. Plenty of stars are in the Masters mix, with the final outcome far from decided entering the final 18 holes. Given the slim margin between those at the top, the heightened stakes Sunday inevitably brings and the greatness it takes to have an iconic Masters moment, Augusta National will continue to serve the game of golf in grand fashion.