AUGUSTA, Ga. – Seve Ballesteros’ birthday is still a big deal, even if he’s not at the Masters.
The two-time champion, who is not here as he battles brain cancer, turned 54 on Saturday. Several European players tweeted birthday wishes to the Spaniard before they teed off, including third-round leader Rory McIlroy, and Jose Maria Olazabal called Ballesteros before he left for Augusta National.
“I called to say 'Happy Birthday,’ and to pass along all of the good wishes from the rest of the champions,” said Olazabal, a fellow Spaniard and two-time Masters winner.
Earlier this week, Phil Mickelson went with a Spanish-themed Champions Dinner in Ballesteros’ honor.
Ballesteros is undergoing chemotherapy, which Olazabal said “takes a toll” on him. But he has been following the Masters, where Ballesteros’ second victory in 1983 set off a wave of dominance by European golfers. A European won the green jacket eight of the next 11 years.
“Obviously he roots for the Europeans, without a doubt, so he’s happy in that sense,” Olazabal said. “He always believed this golf course suited the Europeans better than the U.S. Open, for example.”
LEFTY’S LAMENT: Defending champion Phil Mickelson figured Saturday would be the day to go low and get back into the mix.
He barely moved.
Mickelson made only three birdies in the third round for a 71, leaving him nine shots out of the lead and in need of an improbable comeback if he wants to win a fourth green jacket and rise to No. 1 in the world.
After making 18 birdies last weekend to win the Houston Open, Mickelson feels he can’t make anything at all.
“Yeah, it’s been a little frustrating on the greens,” he said. “I putted so well last week at Houston, I expected to come out this week and kind of light it up. And I have struggled getting the right reads, I struggled getting the right speed. I just have struggled to get it going this week.”
That doesn’t mean he has given up.
The biggest comeback in Masters history was eight shots by Jack Burke Jr. in 1956, the year Ken Venturi shot 80.
“I’m going to be quite a few back, but on Sunday a lot can happen,” Mickelson said. “I’m not going to count myself out. I’ve shot low scores here before, I believe I can do it again and I’m going to give myself every opportunity tomorrow to do that.”
MOVING DAY MOVES: Adam Scott will take a 67 any day at Augusta National.
Doing it on 'Moving Day' at the Masters made it that much better.
The Australian made up some serious ground on the Masters leaderboard Saturday after matching Angel Cabrera and Bubba Watson for low round of the day. Tied for sixth at 7 under, Scott is five shots behind leader Rory McIlroy.
“I felt like I played OK the first two days, just a little bit off,” Scott said. “But today, everything kind of fell into place. It was nice to get a bit of momentum going and keep it going for most of the round.”
Cabrera, Watson, Charl Schwartzel and Bo Van Pelt also made big moves. Cabrera, the 2009 Masters champion, and Schwartzel are tied for second at 8 under with K.J. Choi and Jason Day, while Van Pelt is in eighth place behind Scott and Luke Donald.
Going low is one way to climb the leaderboard. But Scott and Co. got a big assist from the guys who’d been ahead of them, too. The last five groups Saturday were a cumulative 11 over, with only McIlroy and Choi shooting below par.
“I think there was a little bit less expectations because those (last groups) are always going to have a little bit more pressure than what we had,” Schwartzel said. “No disrespect to them, but playing out in front there, I don’t think you’re going to go very far a lot of times unless you really get something going.
“It was almost nice to tee off where I did and sort of sneak in from behind.”
Scott hasn’t finished in the top 10 at the Masters since 2002, his first trip to Augusta National. But he arrived here full of confidence after a tie for sixth at Doral.
Then he opened with a 72, and played the first nine Friday at even par.
“I was just trying to not get frustrated with myself, because I was feeling so good,” Scott said. “Going into the back nine yesterday, I know I’m right around the cut line, and it’s never a nice place to be. I played a really solid back nine yesterday, and I was happy with that. But still, the rhythm of my golf swing isn’t quite where I felt it in practice, and even in the practice rounds. Today it fell back into place.
“I think I did a good job of not getting frustrated seeing everyone go low, and just fighting the momentum out there.”
Beginning the day at 2 under, Scott got rolling with a 12-foot birdie putt on the second hole. He picked up two more strokes before the turn, only to give one back on the 10th. But he holed a 30-footer on 11 for a birdie, and eagled the par-5 13th. After two-putting from “100 feet almost” on the par-5 15th, Scott was at 8 under, with three holes still to play.
But Scott played those holes at 1 over.
Still, he can at least see the leaders.
“They always say the Masters starts on the back nine on Sunday. I’ve got to get myself there first,” Scott said. “I’ve got still at least another solid nine holes to play before I’ve got a real chance.”
ONE GOOD MEMORY: Rickie Fowler has one good memory to take from an otherwise disappointing afternoon.
The 22-year-old was paired Saturday with former Masters champion Fred Couples, who seems to shave a dozen years or so off his age any time he drives up Magnolia Lane. The 51-year-old, who won at Augusta National in 1992, is in contention for a second straight year, going into the final round tied for ninth at 5 under.
“A couple times I had to sit back and remind myself we’re playing the Masters on Saturday and I’m getting to play with Freddie, someone who I’ve looked up to since I was a little kid,” Fowler said. “It was obviously not the round I wanted, but I was just out there a couple times reminding myself to try to calm me down a little bit and relax.”
Fowler began the day tied for seventh after playing “Can you top this?” in the first two rounds with fellow whiz kids Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. But while McIlroy and Day were holding their own on Saturday, Fowler backed up with a 4-over 76. He’s now 1 under, 11 shots behind McIlroy.
“The game feels really good,” Fowler said. “I got a couple bad breaks and then made a couple bad swings that cost me. Some of those things just happened at the wrong time.”
ERNIE AND THE MARKER: Ernie Els was the first to tee off Saturday, having made the cut on the number. It’s an unusual spot for the three-time major champion, so he was surprised to find that he would have company.
Els played with a non-competing marker, Augusta National member Jeff Knox. The Big Easy could have played by himself, but Knox was already waiting when Els got to the first tee.
“We went and played,” Els said. “I didn’t ask any questions.”
Knox is no slouch, once shooting a 61 from the member tees at Augusta. Els wasn’t sure what he shot, although Knox held his own and often had the honors on the tee as Els struggled to a 76.
“He shot about the same as I did,” Els said. “He played really well.”
Asked if he was aware that Knox had shot 61 at Augusta, Els said: “He told me. Pretty impressive for any tees. I don’t care if you play off the ladies tees, that’s pretty impressive. So we’ll probably see him tomorrow again.”
If Knox plays, it will be with K.T. Kim, who shot a 78 and was in last place.