AUGUSTA, Ga. – If not for recent history, the 81st Masters would have nothing even approaching potential drama on Sunday.
Jordan Spieth has, after all, never started a Masters Sunday anywhere but the day’s anchor group and he mused just last week that he “strikes fear” in the field when it comes to the year’s first major.
Just imagine what his résumé would look like if he’d been able to avoid the dreaded “quad” the last two years, but then those train-wreck moments did occur. Despite a comfort level that defies explanation on the game’s most uncomfortable golf course and a Masters résumé that reads like binary code – 2nd, 1st, 2nd – there is nothing inevitable about Sunday’s final frame.
Spieth will begin the day in fourth place, which is uncharted waters for the 2015 champion.
“So new experience for me, coming from behind on Sunday at the Masters, which is kind of fun to say,” said Spieth, who has clawed back from 10 strokes down after an opening 75 to within two shots of the lead despite a quadruple bogey-9 on the 15th hole on Thursday. “Tomorrow might free me up a bit, being behind. I plan to play aggressive because at this point, it's win or go home.”
It will also be something of a new experience for the rest of the would-be champions on Sunday – a handsome list that includes the likes of Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler.
Rose made the day’s biggest move on Day 3, posting a 5-under 67 that included five birdies over his final seven holes to move into a share of the lead. Although the Englishman appreciates Spieth’s history on the former plant nursery, he didn’t sound like a man who would spend Sunday looking over his shoulder.
“I'm a major champion, but I'm looking for more and I'm certainly looking for my first Masters and my first green jacket,” said Rose, who has never missed a cut at the Masters in a dozen trips down Magnolia Lane. “This is a place I dearly love and would dearly love to be part of the history here.”
He’ll head out in the day’s last group with Garcia, whose major championship career is littered with missed opportunities and meltdowns.
This week’s Masters is the Spaniard’s 74th major start, a snapshot of trial and largely error that includes 22 top-10 finishes and four runner-up showings, most recently at the 2014 Open.
At 37 years old it only seems like Garcia’s major window has closed because he started chipping away at Grand Slam glory so long ago when he famously dueled and lost to Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship.
But that same spark he showed at Medinah in ’99 has returned. Always among the game’s best ball-strikers, this week he has demonstrated surprisingly consistent play on those slippery greens. He’s 19th in the field in strokes gained: putting and has just a single three-putt on his way to a share of the lead.
But perhaps the most compelling example of why it might be El Nino’s time after all this time came early on the inward nine on Saturday when his 4-iron dropped short of the 13th green and drifted down the bank toward the creek before defying gravity and stopping short of a watery fate.
“My mentality has kind of changed a little bit, the way I'm thinking things, particularly this week here at Augusta,” said Garcia, who in the past has suggested that luck has not always favored him in the majors. “I've definitely had some good breaks throughout all three rounds.”
Fowler will have the advantage of proximity on Sunday when he tees off in the day’s penultimate group paired with Spieth. Like Garcia, Fowler’s major record isn’t what one would consider sparkling. Following a breakout year in 2014 when he became the first player to finish inside the top 5 in all four majors without winning, he’s failed to contend when it matters the most until this week.
But thanks to a 67 on Friday in blustery conditions and a 1-under 71 on Day 3, he will enjoy his best chance to date to join the major club. He also understands as well as anyone that Sundays at the Masters are defined by volatility.
“With it being fairly crowded, a handful of guys being within a few shots of the lead, I think it's going to be tough for someone to really run and distance themselves too much, with the possibilities of what you can do on the back nine,” said Fowler, who is alone in third place a stroke off the lead.
All told, there are eight players within five strokes of the lead, a “who’s who” list of contenders that includes former champions Adam Scott (3 under) and Charl Schwartzel (2 under), last year’s European Ryder Cup standout Thomas Pieters (1 under) and even Lee Westwood (1 under), a perennial bridesmaid at the year’s first major following a pair of runner-up finishes including last year.
“Everybody has a storyline,” Rose said. “A one-shot lead to start the day really doesn’t mean much.”
Nor does it seem Spieth’s dominance the last three years at Augusta National will be the difference maker, thanks to his well-documented miscues. A year ago he was deep into the back nine on Sunday when he rinsed his title chances into the creek at the 12th hole, and on Thursday it was a bad decision that cost him four shots on the par-5 15th hole.
Things will be different on Sunday, they always are. It’s the secret sauce that makes the Masters unique among the Grand Slam landscape. What have been “tough pars” all week become pine-rattling birdies and eagles late on the back nine and no advantage, be it actual or psychological, is safe.
There may be some fear among Spieth’s rivals as he suggested last week, but it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion.