AUGUSTA, Ga. – For two days Augusta National culled the herd, sending some of the game’s biggest names spiraling out of town and leaving just enough daylight between Bubba Watson and the pack to give the 78th playing the faint hue of a boat race.
But as is the Masters modus operandi, congestion returned under a warm spring sun thanks to what the venerable course does best – two-way traffic.
Bubba Watson, Adam Scott and John Senden gave; Jordan Spieth, Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler took. And now 11 players are within four strokes of the lead with Sunday’s final loop looming. As is the case most years on the former Fruitland Nursery, equal parts mistakes and miracles defined Day 3 with more on the menu on Sunday.
Watson, a former champion two comfortable years removed from his maiden Masters victory, started to fray on the front nine on Saturday but closed with a 74 to share the lead with 20-year-old first-timer Jordan Spieth at 5 under par.
Masters champion vs. Augusta National rookie.
On paper this is a 4-and-3 rout.
“There’s a reason why no one has won the Masters in their first start since Fuzzy (Zoeller) in 1979,” figured Butch Harmon earlier this week. “It’s hard for a first-time to know the nuances.”
But in practice, Watson will likely have his hands and his head full on Sunday when the two set out together in the final two-ball, which will have an interesting start if Spieth follows through on his plan to greet the 2012 champion with a thoughtful, “Mr. Watson.”
“Just because it will mess with him,” joked Spieth, who has now carded three steady rounds (71-70-70) thanks to clutch putting and a dialed-down game plan.
“That’s fine when I’m hitting it past him,” Watson playfully fired back when told of Spieth’s intended greeting.
But then keeping Spieth at bay will only be one facet of Watson’s Sunday agenda.
Trending Matt Kuchar is a stroke back after a third-round 68; Jonas Blixt kept pace with the front-runners with an eventful 71; Rickie Fowler climbed up the leaderboard with a 67, and the erstwhile Miguel Angel Jimenez did what 50-year-olds always seem to do at Augusta National and was two back.
“My thing is enjoy yourself, enjoy what you are doing and smile. Not enough people smile on the golf course,” Jimenez waxed following a turn-back-the-clock 66.
Not bad for a player poised to make his Champions Tour debut next week.
Without Tiger Woods, who missed the Masters following back surgery last week, and Phil Mickelson, who missed the cut, in the weekend field for the first time since 1994, Augusta National did what it always does and delivered birdies and bogeys with equal abandon and an eclectic and evolving leaderboard.
Watson blinked first with bogeys at Nos. 6 and 7 to drop into a tie with Blixt, Thomas Bjorn and, moments later, Kuchar as the ebb and flow of the year’s first major championship dictated the pace.
In the span of 15 minutes, Blixt (No. 13), Jim Furyk (No. 15) and Bjorn (No. 15) all found various water hazards and potential contenders began dropping off faster than the azalea flower petals in the spring heat.
Conversely, the youngest at heart endured the late-afternoon challenge, with Spieth posting an inward nine of 35 to grab a share of the lead and Fowler making the biggest move through the final turn with a 33 to finish at 3 under.
“It’s about time I step up and start playing well on the weekend, especially at the majors,” Fowler said.
If Spieth seemed a tad naïve he’s come by it honestly considering this week’s Masters is just his fifth major, but he has a pretty good idea what to expect after Survival Saturday.
“It was almost like putting on rolling gravel. It was crazy out there,” Spieth said. “I had to make a lot of 3-, 4-footers and I felt comfortable with those. I felt like my lag putting was good and it needs to be out here.”
The great misnomer in Masters lore is that this tournament is little more than a putting contest. To be precise, it is a lag-putting contest, particularly on greens that have become markedly crustier since Monday’s deluge sent players and patrons dashing for cover.
It may be where Watson has his most distinct advantage, as he demonstrated on the 14th after his approach caught a ridge in the green and he two-putted from the better part of a country mile. “Bubba ball” may get the headlines, but it was his putting that delivered his first green jacket and will determine whether he collects his second.
“I knew the key was just making some putts down the stretch, and luckily I did that on the last two holes to get in the final group,” said Watson, who ended his streak of six consecutive sub-par rounds at Augusta National.
Ditto for Fowler, who is pacing the field with a 1.50 putting average and has just two three-putts in 54 holes. For all the attention paid to Fowler’s move to Harmon’s stable and the ensuing swing change, it has been his putting that has been wanting through the early part of 2014.
“He started putting better at Bay Hill and this place fits his creativity so well,” said Fowler’s caddie Joe Skovron. “At No. 9 he turned his back to the hole and almost made the putt.”
At first blush, the lines are clear. Sunday appears to be the tipping point between young and old, experienced and fresh-faced with Watson, Kuchar and Jimenez in one corner and Spieth, Fowler and Blixt in the burnt yellow trunks.
But that’s not Augusta National’s style. Patience and panache, not pedigree, count on Sunday when the leaderboard begins to resemble I-20 at rush hour.
“I’ll lose some more hair as we go on this week,” Spieth said of the building pressure.
Spoken like a wise man.