AUGUSTA, Ga. – With one player each at 9-under, 8-under, 7-under, 6-under and 5-under, the Masters leaderboard entering the final round more closely resembles starting positions for a NASCAR race.
Of course, that means we could be headed for a major pileup at the turn.
Each contender has certain keys to winning the green jacket on Sunday; conversely, they all have things that need to be avoided here, as well.
What are they? Let’s break 'em down:
Peter Hanson: 9-under 207
Needs to … keep hitting fairways. Through three rounds, Hanson ranks T-7 in driving accuracy, finding at least 11 of 14 fairways every day. A guy who hits the ball dead straight off the tee, you’ll know early if nerves are affecting him because his sightlines are set by now. Avoiding mistakes will be a major key to holding onto his lead – and that starts, of course, with keeping it in the short stuff.
Needs to avoid … getting caught up in the moment. At first glance, it may seem unfortunate that he’ll be paired with fan favorite Phil Mickelson in the final twosome, but that should remove the spotlight from the 54-hole leader – which just may be what he needs. His playing partner is known to make birdies in bunches – especially on this course – but Hanson will benefit from his own brand of steady play rather than trying to match Mickelson shot for shot. Having been paired with him in the first two rounds should help for familiarity’s sake.
Phil Mickelson: 8-under 208
Needs to … put together one of his celebrated Augusta rallies. We’ve seen it so often from Phil in the past: He plods along for a while, only to get white hot in a hurry and flip on the electricity amongst his adoring galleries. It happened again on Saturday. Nine pars to open on the front side, then he played the back in 6-under 30 to make a huge jump on the leaderboard. One more streak like that and he could have a fourth green jacket.
Needs to avoid … the letdown after such a rally. The birdies are going to happen. You know it, I know it and – most importantly – Phil knows it. What takes place after the rally, though, is up for debate. In the third round, there was no letdown. But in the past, he’s often parlayed rampant success into over-aggressiveness, notably in 2009, when he posted an opening-nine 30, only to hit his tee shot on 12 into the creek. Knowing when to step on the gas pedal is only important if he also knows when to slow down.
Louis Oosthuizen: 7-under 209
Needs to … play the par-5 holes better. Usually, the four par-5s are where players can pick up their birdies – if not eagles – but
Oosthuizen has played them 12 times and remains at even-par so far. That’s not good enough. With a few big hitters also in contention, he’ll need to take better advantage of these holes if he is to keep pace with others on the leaderboard.
Needs to avoid … Bubba-mania. Paired in the penultimate tee time with Bubba Watson, Oosthuizen may be outdriven by 50 yards on some holes. Don’t expect it to affect him much – this is a major champion, after all – but watching a guy swing that hard at the ball can hurt your rhythm. Throw in the fact that Bubba gets a bit fidgety out there and he may be best served not paying any attention to his playing partner at all.
Bubba Watson: 6-under 210
Needs to … continue attacking the golf course. Watson only knows one way to play and that’s with long-bombing drives and the biggest draws and fades in the game. He does that in practice rounds, he does that in regular season PGA Tour events -- and now he needs to stick with what got him here. Some players may have a tendency to play a bit tight when such a lofty title is on the line. Bubba’s game is always loose. He needs to play like it’s a fun round on a Tuesday morning instead of Sunday afternoon at Augusta National.
Needs to avoid … nerves. By his own admission, Bubba has self-diagnosed ADD and tends to lack focus at times on the course. One instance of that on Sunday could spell doom on a course that could very well toughen up during the afternoon.
Matt Kuchar: 5-under 211
Needs to … keep hitting fairways and greens. For the week, Kuchar ranks fourth in driving accuracy and second in GIR. That’s not unusual for one of the game’s steadier players, but if Sunday’s festivities turn into that aforementioned pileup, then continuing to keep things simple will be of the utmost priority.
Needs to avoid … another “good” round. Kuchar has reached fifth place on the leaderboard thanks to consistent scores of 71-70-70. With four very solid, experienced players ahead of him, he’ll need something that’s more great than good in order to make a serious run at the green jacket. That could include a target score of something in the 66-67 range, while hoping the guys above him struggle.
The rest of the field: 4-under 212 or below
Need to … post a number, get in the clubhouse and hope Mother Nature starts blowing some wind at the leaders down the stretch. With a group that includes Hunter Mahan, Henrik Stenson, Padraig Harrington and Lee Westwood at 4-under, there’s definitely some talent that’s worthy of claiming the victory. Other players have come back from bigger Sunday morning deficits already this year, which should buoy their hopes.
Need to avoid … firing at every flagstick, hitting aggressive putts at every hole. It may be tempting considering there’s ground to make up, but these players still need to use a little patience and caution, too.