AUGUSTA, Ga. Take a deep breath. Now exhale. Whew! Has watching a golf tournament ever been so thrilling and so exhausting? Saturday at Augusta National could be summarized in a single word: Wow!
One formality remains before the 74th Masters joins the short list of the greatest, most epic Masters Tournaments in history, a little something called the back nine on Sunday. That's where this tournament truly begins, according the finest of announcer clichÃ©s, and it's always where the tournament is won or lost.
Sunday has a tough act to follow two tough acts. This Masters began with one of the most memorable Thursdays in modern times. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer hit the ceremonial first tee shot, senior legends Fred Couples and Tom Watson went low, and Phil Mickelson and the back-from-exile Tiger Woods also took it deep on a day of birdies, eagles and red numbers.
Thursday was great and Saturday was even better ... if that's possible.
Lee Westwood opened a five-shot lead by the 12th hole, but then came a remarkable 30-minute stretch that Masters fans will remember for years to come. Fred Couples, walking down the 14th fairway, signaled to his pal Phil Mickelson, walking to the 13th green, to pick it up, to get things going. The last time a wave had this much impact was when a high-five from Moses parted the Red Sea.
Mickelson holed his eagle putt and a huge, classic Masters roar swept through the pines. Then Phil spun a wedge shot into the cup at the par-4 14th for a second straight eagle and simply raised his arms in exultation. Another deafening roar rolled across the back nine. Amazingly, Phil wasn't the first player to make consecutive eagles here. Dan Pohl did it in 1981 and Dustin Johnson quietly accomplished the feat last year.
Like a tsunami, the roars just kept coming. Couples chipped in for eagle from behind the green at the par-5 15th. Are you kidding? Meanwhile, Tiger Woods, who seemed to have played his way out of contention with three bogeys in a four-hole stretch on the front side, seemed sparked by the electric atmosphere. He reeled off three birdies in a row, starting at the 13th.
Mickelson capped the remarkable theatrics at the par-5 15th when he nearly knocked in a third straight eagle. After laying up, his sand wedge approach shot landed close and curled just behind the cup, stopping a few inches away. Eagle-eagle-birdie, and just that quick he was 12 under and neck-and-neck with Westwood. The Masters leaderboard kept turning like somebody desperately working a Rubik's Cube.
Has there been another Saturday like this? Who's got enough energy to look that up? We've got to pace ourselves to be ready for Sunday, because the fourth round could be something special. In fact, Mickelson is already pretty sure that it will be.
Asked about his tremendous run, Mickelson was dismissive. "It happens here," he said. "We've seen strange things happen. The pins that are left are birdie pins. I think we'll have some excitement tomorrow, a real shootout."
A real shootout? Then what were these first three days? The warm-up?
When the tumult and the shouting finally faded Saturday evening, it looked like this: Westwood shot 68 and saw his lead cut to one over Mickelson, who posted 67. Woods stuffed an iron shot close for a kick-in birdie at the 18th make a note, that could be a key shot in the tournament by Sunday night to tie K.J. Choi for third at eight under par, four behind Westwood. They will play together for the fourth time this week. Couples is hanging tough at seven under. (Complete leaderboard.)
Couples was the guy who started that blitzkrieg with his hand signal to Phil.
"It was pretty funny," Couples said. "We were texting a little bit about how low I'd have to go to catch him. He went eagle-eagle-birdie, that's a pretty big jump, then I chipped in. If I can shoot a crazy score tomorrow, who knows? I just love this place."
After days like this, who doesn't? Mickelson was pretty excited when he got around to describing his three-hole streak. "I had a 7-iron from 195 yards at 13, and I took a chance to go at it, and I hit one of the best shots of the tournament to eight feet," he said. "That spurred the rest of the round. I hit a good shot at 14. You don't expect it to go in, and it was pretty cool that it did. I was trying to make a third eagle at 15. I thought it was possible that somebody had made two in a row, but I didn't think anybody had ever made three. When my wedge shot crossed the hole, I was expecting it to disappear."
It was a day to remember at Augusta. In other words, just like Thursday was. One story from recent Masters was that the roars had vanished from this course because it had become too difficult. Then came Sunday last year, with charges by Phil and Tiger. That story was filed away. This Masters means it should be permanently laid to rest. Nothing is louder than this place.
"There were roars going up all over the place," Mickelson said. "You couldn't figure out who was doing what. It was really a fun day to see the leaderboard change. There was some turnover, not many steady rounds of pars."
Said Westwood, "It was one of those great days in golf. I was well aware that somebody was making a charge, and I figured it was Phil. Great players do great things at major championships. That's what they're all about. You've got to expect the unexpected."
The most important thing to take from Saturday's round was the play by Mickelson. He drove it well, he putted well and he hit his irons well. "I haven't played this well in a long time," he said. "I feel my game is as good as it's been."
It may be helping that his wife, Amy, who has been battling breast cancer, and their three children are with him in Augusta this week, though they haven't been at the course. (His kids did caddie at the par-3 tournament.) It's the first time the family has traveled with Mickelson to a tournament since the Players last May. And Mickelson looks like the player who finished last year on a hot streak.
Westwood played superbly as well. He's the only player with all three rounds in the 60s. He grew up in the working-class town of Worksop, England, and would probably land atop anyone's ranking of the current best players who haven't won a major. He's been close, notably at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open and last year at the British Open at Turnberry. The roars didn't rattle Westwood. After a bogey at the par-3 12th, when he hit into a greenside bunker, he played solidly coming in.
Woods will be in the next-to-last group with Choi, who will be under the radar on Sunday. But give the man some props. He's been paired with Woods for three straight days. Intimidated? Apparently not. He is now in position to become the second Asian-born player to win a major and follow the footsteps of his countryman, Y.E. Yang, last year's PGA Championship winner.
Couples looked like he still has a spark of life in him, too, despite giving back a stroke when he bogeyed the 18th hole for a second straight day.
"I hit the ball extremely well today ,and 68 is a very good score," Couples said. As for his back, which bothered him Friday, he added, "I've got one more day. I think I can get through it."
That's easy for Fred to say. All he has to do is play. Watching this tournament for three days has been exciting, excruciating, exhilarating and exhausting. It's been great.
Now take another deep breath and get ready. Here comes Sunday and one more wonderful, amazing trip through the back nine.