AUGUSTA, Ga. — Never mind who isn’t here, and, yes, we’ll get to that. Look who is here: the kid who may be America’s next great golfer, the lefty who won two years ago and a 50-year-old pot-bellied Spaniard.
And look where they are, high on the leaderboard, each with a legitimate chance of taking the 78th Masters.
A day and 18 holes to play, and practically everybody and his putter is in contention, just as it should be in the year’s first major. The temperature is high—80 degrees Saturday—and the tension just as high.
Now check this out: Jordan Spieth, 20, a year out of the University of Texas, and Bubba Watson, 35, two years away from winning the 2012 Masters, are tied for the third-round lead at five-under par 211.
Matt Kuchar, 35, who was the Jordan Spieth of the late 1990s, and Jonas Blixt, 29, of Sweden—and Florida State—are a shot behind at 212.
Another shot behind are Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain, who has a ponytail, smokes cigars and looks very much like the "Most Interesting Man in the World," and Ricky Fowler, 25, who is the tour’s flashiest dresser and one of its finest putters.
Lee Westwood, the Englishman and arguably the best player never to win a major (or "BPNTWAM" as he’s known), 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk and "The Dane" ("Great" or "Very Good" at the least) Thomas Bjorn are at 214, two-under.
Once in a great while, 1997, for example, when Tiger exploded into our consciousness, the Masters is noncompetitive. The rest of the time, it’s a tug-of-war, a taffy pull, an exercise in hysteria and history.
Jack Nicklaus came out of the past and pined to overtake Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros in 1986. Schwartzel birdied the last four holes, unprecedented, for the win in 2011.
That’s why the Masters is the Masters, held on a course loaded with possibilities and double-bogies, where the bold and brave can be rewarded or destroyed.
No lead is safe. Watson went from seven-under at the start Saturday to six-under to eight-under (eagle at the second hole) to seven-under to six-under to five-under by the seventh hole.
And it’s on the back nine, upgraded after World War II by the late architect Robert Trent Jones Sr., a devilish sort, where the brilliance and evil are most noticeable. Water on the 11th, water on the 12th, water on the 13th, water on the 15th and water on the 16th.
It’s a cliche, heard spring after spring: The Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday. It’s also true. Leads are grabbed. Leads are squandered. The greens are like glass. Nerves are like sandpaper.
Not that long ago, the late Seve Ballesteros avoided the pond and the bunkers, landing on the putting surface of the par-three 16th, then four-putted. Asked how, Ballesteros, the swashbuckler from Spain, said, “I meese, I meese, I meese, I make.”
What Spieth, after his par-72, said was, “We kind of realized early how difficult this golf course was going to play today. At No. 1, the ball was picking up speed as it went by the hole. It was crazy fast out there. I’ve never putted on greens like this before.”
Of course not. He’s never played in the Masters before.
“I’m in a great position,” said Spieth. So is almost everyone in spiked shoes.
Watson’s revered at Augusta for the way he came out of the trees on the second playoff hole to hit the green and win two years ago. “They ought to put a plaque where the ball was,” said one man searching for the spot.
Watson is searching for that second green jacket awarded to the Masters champion.
“If this is my worst say,” he said of his two-over par 74 Saturday, “I’m still tied for the lead. I have a great shot.”
At Augusta during the last round, the pressure is on to make great shots. And sometimes they don’t help.
“There are knife edges on the greens,” said Westwood, who finished second to Mickelson in 2010 and third in 2012. “It’s getting faster and firmer. I thought I hit a great shot into the last and basically had to grind to make four.”
Thomas Bjorn, a contender in majors but never a champion, thinks it will take a round in the 60s to win, which will be difficult on a course designed and set up to be difficult. He likes Watson.
“Bubba can shoot 64 and run away from everybody.”
Or he can shoot 74 and not go anywhere.
Jimenez is proof of how everything at Augusta is unpredictable except unpredictability. Friday he shot 76. Saturday he shot 66.
From whoops to whoopee.
“(Friday) I was not being patient,” he said. “Today I was. The main thing is keep your place, keep your rhythm and keep on your song.
"That’s the secret to the golf course. Doesn’t matter how you play, you need to keep the patience and keep below the hole. The rest just happens.”
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, is covering his 150th major golf championship. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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