AUGUSTA, Ga. – The lead was down to four, then climbed back to five, and six, and even seven. All afternoon fans looked at scoreboards around Augusta National and on their screens, everyone wondering the same thing: What would it take for the Masters to become a tournament again and not simply a coronation?
Jordan Spieth, 21, more than held up amid the roars generated by play ahead of him, but left more than a sliver of doubt. After slipping with a double bogey at the 17th hole, Spieth avoided a late collapse with an unlikely par at the last and signed for a third-round 70. He’s at a tournament-record 16 under par and four shots clear of Justin Rose (67) heading into Sunday.
“I obviously would have liked to finish the round a little bit better,” Spieth said. “But it could have been worse, and I’m very pleased with that up and down on 18. It might have been a one in five. That took some guts.”
Phil Mickelson (67) is five shots back, while Charley Hoffman signed for a 1-under 71 and a 10-under total. No other player is fewer than 10 shots back.
Wearing an azalea-colored shirt in an effort to summon an Arnold Palmer-like charge, Mickelson, who would have secured a spot in the final twosome on Sunday with a birdie on 18, but his 10-footer slid by.
“It's what motivated me in the off-season four or five days a week to get up at 5:30 and work out, dreaming of this, giving myself an opportunity in this tournament,” Mickelson said. “Granted, I've got a lot of work to do tomorrow and I'm quite a ways back. A good round, though, and it could be fun.”
Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods each shot 68 and are in a five-way tie for fifth at six under, 10 shots behind. They’ll play together on Sunday.
“Well, you’re going to hear something there,” Spieth said, laughing.
With 22 birdies already, Spieth has made plenty of noise himself. He had seven on Saturday and broke the Masters record for birdies over three consecutive rounds (21, by Woods in 2005; the four-round record (25, by Mickelson in 2001) is also in sight. One day after he removed Raymond Floyd’s name from the record for the low 36-hole total at the Masters, he bettered by one shot the mark set by Floyd and Woods.
Spieth also is well positioned to break Woods’s 72-hole scoring record of 18 under par. His only regret was the double-bogey on 17.
“Driver never should have come out of my bag there,” he said.
But it did, and he wound up in the trees left of the fairway. He smartly played right of the green with his approach, but he duffed the pitch shot and took three putts to get down from the collar.
Rose, who was two over through six holes, made seven birdies over his last 12, including a hole-out from the sand at the par-3 16th and a curling, left-to-right downhill birdie on 18, to earn a spot in the final pairing.
For years fans wondered which young player might emerge and remind us of Woods’s mastery, and then along came McIlroy, who won four majors by age 25. Now, though, it is Spieth who has captured our imagination. Even after his nearly calamitous third-round finish, on Sunday he may yet reprise his recent runaway victories at the Australian Open (a six-shot win, after a remarkable final-round 63) and the Hero World Challenge (a 10-shot romp).
For the second straight year, he goes into the last round at Augusta National with the lead. In his Masters debut, he was tied with Bubba Watson, but after moving ahead early in the round, Spieth faded and tied for second, three shots back of Watson after a final-round 72.
“The good thing for him is he's already experienced it once,” said McIlroy. “He's played in the final group at the Masters before. It didn't quite happen for him last year, but I think he'll have learned from that experience. I think all that put together, he'll definitely handle it a lot better than I did.”
Like Spieth, McIlroy was 21 when he took the lead, also four strokes, into the final round of the 2011 Masters. He shot a final-round 80 to finish 15th. Spieth, though, may be more seasoned at 21 than even McIlroy.
Woods has perhaps been the biggest surprise of the tournament. In his first start since the Farmers Insurance Open in early February, when he was beset by the chip yips and “misfiring glutes,” the former world No. 1 was on no one’s list of favorites at the start of the week. Nevertheless, on Saturday he birdied three of the first four holes to make his first appearance on the leader board, and he carded a front-nine 32 before managing just a 36 on the back for a 68.
“Oh, man, it could have been something seriously low,” said Woods, who has plummeted to 111th in the World Ranking. “I had it really going.”
Could have. Would have. Should have. The rest of the field is still wondering what might have been, while Jordan Spieth is savoring what is.