AUGUSTA, Ga. – Phil Mickelson made up six shots in three holes, Tiger Woods made up three in three holes, and the golf gods seem to be making it up as they go along.
With all due respect to the golfing greats who put on a show on a postcard perfect spring afternoon, the green jackets get the nod for turning up the volume. Mickelson may get credit for ripping Saturday’s lid off with an eagle-eagle-birdie tear through Nos. 13, 14 and 15, while Woods continued to thumb his nose at karma with a birdie trifecta beginning at the 13th, but it is the powers that be that control this tempo.
The Masters stayed on topic thanks to some benign back-nine pin positions and not a breath of wind as Mickelson, Woods, Lee Westwood, et al took the lead.
The Englishman is at 12 under after a 68 on Super Saturday, followed in order by Mickelson (67) a shot back, Woods (70) and K.J. Choi (70) four clear and Fred Couples (68) keeping time at 7 under.
Westwood may have the lead, but Mickelson cornered the market on the most inspiring supporting cast member. With his entire family – including his wife, Amy, who is still recovering from breast cancer – in Augusta, Lefty put on a show.
Mickelson’s 5-under card matches that inspiring closing-round 67 on Sunday last year and was the stuff that rattles pines.
For most of a calm afternoon it was the Brits and Tiger show. Westwood continued to put distance between himself and another major heartbreak while Woods’ front-nine charge was stalled with bogeys at Nos. 6 and 7. By the turn Westwood was four clear of the field and had, for the second time this week, taken down playing partner Ian Poulter in nine holes.
But as he stepped to the 12th tee Mickelson’s second shot at the 14th landed left of the hole and spun in for a bookend eagle to move him to 11 under and one back. Less than five minutes later Westwood tapped in his bogey and Lefty had at least a share of his first lead since last year’s WGC-HSBC Champions.
Mickelson famously attempted to win a major with no drivers in his bag, a WGC with two drivers in his bag and, now, a Masters with no expectations. Funny how that works. A few weeks of pedestrian play, a reality check waiting at home and next thing you know your third green jacket is yours to lose.
“This is the first week (his family) have travelled in 11 months. It's really fun having them here, and it takes a lot of the heartache away, and it's been great,” Mickelson said.
Couples, playing in the group ahead of Mickelson, couldn’t resist giving Lefty some grief after his second consecutive eagle.
“I wanted the golf ball he holed out with at 14, but he couldn’t hear me,” Couples said. “I chipped in on the next hole and told him he could have mine.”
But then Boom Boom was much more than a bystander. He rebounded from a sloppy second round that seemed to put an early end to his late-in-life dreams of a second green jacket with a 68 but was gutted to learn, unlike his Champions Tour haven, they play 72 on the big tour.
The good news, Couples is striking the ball like he did in his 40s. Bad news, he’s putting like he did in his 40s. The reluctant senior made nothing and bogeyed the last for the second consecutive day, but sounded nothing like a man headed for a ceremonial role.
“I don’t feel 50 playing golf,” Couples said. “If I can get loose I can go to the first tee and pound a drive.”
As for Woods, his reintroduction remains on script. Although he’s nowhere near as adept at running down major championships as he is when he’s playing from the front of the pack, his game has looked largely solid and if his putting responds the way the patrons have this week his personal life may become a footnote to his professional life for the first time since Nov. 27.
“Normally you're not going to have four great days. I've played golf long enough where I've never had four great rounds in a row,” Woods said. “One day is always going to be your off day, and on your off day if you can keep it under par it's always a good sign, and I did that today.”
And, to be honest, the sight of Westwood, who is piling up Grand Slam near-misses at an alarming rate in recent years, at the front of the line likely doesn’t inspire much fear in the world No. 1. The Englishman doesn’t seem to have history on his side either considering Nick Faldo was the last player from England to be fitted for a green jacket in 1996.
But then Westwood looked unflappable on his 54th hole, chipping to 8 feet and rolling in his par save for what amounts to a statistical dead-heat, give or take a few style points.
On Saturday all of England stopped to watch the Grand National – think Kentucky Derby sans mint juleps – which was won by a pony called “Don’t push it.” On Sunday, England’s biggest horse will take on his counterpart from the United States, and if the powers that be hold to form, it promises to be anything but a two-horse race.