AUGUSTA, Ga. – His lead restored to four shots, Scottie Scheffler was looking to put this 86th Masters on ice.
One final birdie during a hectic second nine at Augusta National would give him a little more cushion over Cameron Smith, the second-hottest player in golf. But Scheffler’s drive on the 18th hole darted into the left trees, out of view. Scheffler’s caddie, Ted Scott, saw the ball clip a branch and he tried to reassure his boss.
“We’re like, No big deal, we’ll just be over there and chip out. Whatever,” Scheffler said.
But then the spotter couldn’t immediately locate the ball. Neither could the limited number of patrons in the area – Scheffler’s quick hook had traveled only about 225 yards.
“We saw the guy with the flag that always finds the balls kind of panicking,” Scheffler said. “I was like, Oh, crap. Wonder what’s going on?”
Those three-minute searches can expire quickly, but Scheffler’s wayward drive was eventually found in a bush. He took an unplayable lie, slashed a 3-iron to the back of the green and walked off with a bogey that felt much better.
This Masters was no longer a coronation, not yet anyway: Up by seven at one point Saturday, Scheffler signed for a 1-under 71 that put him just three shots ahead of Smith heading into the final round.
“You want to play in the Masters with a three-shot lead on Sunday,” said Scheffler’s swing coach, Randy Smith. “Plus, think about this: What did he shoot, 1 under par? Some guys came to him. I thought today 2 under par was going to be the benchmark. In the back of my head, I thought that would be a good, solid performance. He could have shot better than that, but he didn’t just blow his foot off.”
No, but Scheffler at least stubbed his toe.
When he birdied the par-5 eighth hole, Scheffler was seven shots ahead of his closest pursuers. He played 2 over par to the house.
There was the 12th hole, when he found the bunker short and then blasted over the back of the green.
There was the 14th hole, when his wedge shot spun back off the front of the green and left a nasty pitch.
There was the 15th hole, when he wedged to 30 feet and then three-putted.
“He made a couple of mistakes,” Smith said, “but think about this: He didn’t pay the maximum penalty.”
He made bogey, not worse.
“He’s gotta stay on the offensive side,” Smith said. “That’s offense, with a great deal of common sense.”
This windswept Masters has been winnowed down to three contenders, the only players within six shots: Scheffler, winner of three of his past five events; Smith, who captured The Players in his most recent start; and Sungjae Im, the co-runner-up here in 2020 (with Smith) who came home in 32 Saturday to move within five.
It's rare that the final group will feature the two best players of the calendar year so far; Scheffler and Smith, respectively, have earned the most world-ranking points this season. Scheffler could become the fourth player to win the Masters while ranked No. 1.
“It should be a great fight tomorrow,” Scheffler said. “Both of us are in good form, so I’m definitely looking forward to the challenge of playing with him tomorrow.”
After the round, Randy Smith and Scott appeared eager to get to the tournament practice area before nightfall.
“I can’t tell you what happened on the 18th tee,” Smith said, “but I’m going to find out.”
Scheffler, too, seemed in a hurry, breezing through post-round questions about his New Jersey roots, about his family’s sacrifices growing up, about his relationship with Scott, who was on the bag for both of Bubba Watson’s Masters titles.
Soon after his media obligations, Scheffler appeared on the range, his bay illuminated by floodlights. He said that it wasn’t uncommon for him to head there post-round, that it’s part of his normal routine, that it helps him wind down and reinforce good habits. But it still was a bit unsettling to see the 54-hole leader, coming off a second nine with just three pars, working until the lights cut out.
“Scrapping and scraping,” Smith said of the day.
But most importantly: Still leading.