Masters 2015: Separating Contenders from Pretenders Before Sunday's Final Round

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistApril 12, 2015

Masters 2015: Separating Contenders from Pretenders Before Sunday's Final Round

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    So we come to Sunday at the Masters, a day defined by color. Some wear red, some wear orange, some wear black and one wears green.

    In that mix is a small handful of true contenders, players within a long-iron shot of Jordan Spieth, the guy who puts the star in the Lone Star State.

    Like a cat toying with a mouse, Spieth methodically broke down the spirits of those around him, that was until he cracked the door open with a double bogey on No. 17. He still controls his destiny, but he's got some scrapes on his paint now.

    There are 18 holes to play, and Spieth has already made pretenders out of contenders. Sunday promises to be an scintillating day of golf at Augusta National Golf Club. Read on to find out the few who can contend and the others who can only hope.

Paul Casey Doesn't Have the Makeup

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Paul Casey, for all his guile, doesn’t inspire the image of a major tournament champion. At five under par, he’s tied for 10th. He failed to move up the board in a major way on a day when Spieth seemed human.

    Casey was two over on the final three holes, going from seven-under to five-under. He hit just eight fairways on Saturday but managed 14 greens.

    He had his chances to score birdies, and he always came up short by a roll or two. That’s the difference between a player threatening and a player merely receiving a nice pay day for a weekend well-done.

    Like so many golfers in the top 15, his hand was forced by Spieth’s 14-under through two rounds. That number changes the way you play. It has to. Just keeping pace is too slow when Sunday creeps ever closer.

    Verdict: Pretender

Charley Hoffman Has Respectable 3-Day Score

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Charley Hoffman, like Casey, doesn't have that major contender feel about him, but his score through three rounds (10-under) makes him a contender, lukewarm as it is. If he goes really low on Sunday, he has a chance.

    He’s done well for himself to stay at double digits under par. To his credit, he didn’t melt down. He had a steady round and will be in the penultimate Sunday group.

    All the more impressive was how well he did while playing with Spieth. The tendency is to try play outside of yourself when a player is playing on rails.

    Hoffman had two bogeys on the back nine but finished the round with a birdie on No. 18. Hoffman didn’t do anything great, but he didn’t do anything that bad either. He finished his round at one under par.

    Hoffman's best finish in a major is tied for 27th at the Masters in 2011. His history wouldn't suggest a threatening performance on Sunday, but he's right there.

    He didn't play losing golf, but it wasn’t winning golf either. Rose, Spieth and Mickelson all played winning golf.

    Verdict: Contender

Dustin Johnson Coughed It Up on No. 12

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Here’s the thing with the six-under-par Dustin Johnson: If the par fives are an eagle’s roost come Sunday, he’ll have a chance. If not, his sour double bogey on No. 12 took him out of contention and made him a pretender.

    That’s the key. He went to the aviary for three bald eagles on Friday. He failed to take advantage of the four par fives on Saturday and those will always be the way Johnson scores low at Augusta.

    Yahoo Sports' Ryan Ballengee reported Friday that Johnson:

    It wasn't like I was hitting it any farther. It was normal shots that I've had in the past. Just it's always tough around here to hit the shots the correct distance with the wind. The wind was blowing pretty hard today. So to figure out the wind and get the shot in the right spot, it was tough. But I just hit some great shots on those holes.

    Johnson has performed well in every major except the Masters. With two top 10s at the U.S. Open, two top 10s at the Open Championship and three top 10s at the PGA Championship, Augusta really sticks in his craw.

    He’ll go for it on Sunday because he has to, and if those par fives are scoreable, Johnson could make a push, however unlikely.

    Verdict: Pretender

Phil Mickelson Has 3 Green Jackets and Wants a 4th

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Phil Mickelson had a forgettable spring until he made the trip to Augusta National, but that's the MO for PM. Mickelson could barely make a cut and hadn’t made a single top 10, but there’s something about the Masters that ignites his game, shifting it into high gear. Majors are all that matter for players of Mickelson's pedigree.

    Come Sunday, he'll be back in black.

    "Studies have shown that NFL teams that wear black record more penalties," Mickelson said after his round on Saturday on CBS. "I'll wear black so I stay aggressive."

    He was bullish in pink on Saturday, this despite giving a stroke back on No. 17.

    His nuclear bomb putt on No. 16 sent him to 12-under par. Couple that with a Spieth bogey on No. 14 and suddenly a six-shot deficit became four in five minutes. He finished his round 11 under and five back of Spieth in the end.

    The Associated Press’ Doug Ferguson relayed a Geoff Ogilvy quote (via Twitter): "You can assess his game all you want, but if he wants to contend, he does."

    Mickelson wants majors and Ryder Cups, everything else is for the sponsors.

    Lefty will have thousands on his side, not rooting against Spieth, but pulling for the 45-year-old to win a fourth green jacket.

    Verdict: Contender

Too Much Ground Even for the World No. 1 Rory McIlroyto Make Up

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Rory McIlroy, the world No. 1, had a solid day on Saturday, but a bogey on No. 18 slayed the momentum he needed to carry into Sunday’s final round.

    Saturday’s round was his best of the three, but with the way Spieth has played, McIlroy’s third round still wasn’t good enough.

    It’s no coincidence that McIlroy had his best round of the tournament on a day when he hit the most greens. He hit 14 of 18 greens in Round 3, compared to 10 on Friday and 12 on Thursday.

    Heading into his Saturday, McIlroy said on BBCSports.com, “I'll need two phenomenal rounds and Jordan would have to play a couple of average rounds. Neither look like they're going to happen, so it's going to be tough."

    Four-under par would have been a great round on Days 1 and 2, but McIlroy needed to go eight under on Saturday and Sunday to give himself a crack at catching Spieth.

    Now, if there's a player who can shoot 63 or 64, it would be McIlroy, right? The top end of the leaderboard will have to come back and McIlroy will need to go eight or nine under for CBS' Jim Nantz to start calling his name. 

    It's a stretch.

    Realistically, the career Grand Slam waits another year.

    Verdict: Pretender

Justin Rose Can Rely on His Back-9 Prowess

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Because of His Back-Nine Prowess

    If Mickelson stomped after Spieth, igniting roars from the gallery, Justin Rose, 12 under, crept up like a pad-footed cat with his three straight birdies on the back nine. He blew his cover with the fourth, a chip-in from the bunker on No. 16.

    The 2013 U.S. Open champion putted his way into the final pairing throughout the back nine and especially on No. 18. 

    "When I made that putt, it got me one stroke ahead of Phil and in the final pairing," Rose said on the CBS broadcast. "That was a quick putt taking the high line."

    People forget Rose is a major golf champion, but his unassuming style and quiet approach make him easy to forget as one of the best players on tour.

    Five birdies in the final six holes, including the chip-in and a slick putt on No. 18, announced to the golfing public someone who could threaten the final group.

Tiger Woods Is Back, Just Not BACK

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    What can be said about Tiger Woods’ day? He made the turn at 32 and looked to have one of those truly special rounds that put him in the mix for his fifth green jacket.

    Unfortunately for Woods, he let makeable birdie putts slide past and he bogeyed No. 18. The result put him at a respectable six-under par but way too far off the pace to make up any legitimate ground.

    “He far exceeded everyone’s expectations coming into this week,” said CBS commentator Jim Nantz.

    Woods striped his drives and put himself in position to hit greens, 14 on Saturday (and Friday). He sunk an amazing putt on the par-five 13th hole, but he gave it back on No. 14.

    “I’m getting my feet back,” Woods said in a post-round interview on CBS. “That is one of the toughest courses to come back on. There’s so little you can do on these uneven lies. I’m going to have to post something low [on Sunday], 30 or 31.”

    That’s too much to ask of a golfer in top form, let alone a player who comes into this tournament off a two-month layoff.

    This sets Woods up well for the U.S. Open and the Open Championship. He’s back with a lowercase "B" right now.

    Verdict: Pretender

Jordan Spieth Has the Demeanor to Win This Wire-to-Wire

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    "Spieth Mode" is for real, even if he threw down a double bogey and an errant approach on No. 18.

    The only chance the field had was if Spieth came back to them and wilted under the weight of the weekend. Instead of killing him, it fueled him. Then he flooded the engine with a double bogey on No. 17 and a wayward iron on No. 18.

    Jason Sobel, ESPN.com golf writer, tweeted about Spieth’s approach on No. 18: “Oh, man. Jordan Spieth's approach shot into 18 looked, um, kind of ... Norman-ish."

    He recovered from that approach to sink his putt and lock his score at 16 under, four ahead of Rose.

    "It was huge just to see one go in," Spieth said in a post-round interview on CBS. "I don't recommend hitting it there. I was very pleased with that putt rolling in to get some momentum."

    All Spieth needed was to be within 12 feet of the cup, and the ball had a better than 50 percent chance of sinking below green level. His putts on No. 12 and No. 13 were daggers.

    He doesn’t just have ice water in his veins; he has liquid nitrogen in there that's turned back into melted ice.

    The pressure is getting more intense, and with Rose and Mickelson not relenting, Spieth still needs to go out and win this tournament. What was once a foregone conclusion is now open for discussion.

    "Last year left a bad taste in my mouth," Spieth said on the CBS broadcast. "Maybe I got a little anxious at times, but I kept it together with the putter."

    Verdict: Contender

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