AUGUSTA, Ga.—The third round of the Masters was the first day of spring. Cool in the pines, warm in the bleachers, and a leader board with something for everybody. A journeyman (Charley Hoffman) looking to add some sparkle to his name. A superstar-in-training (Jordan Spieth). A superstar-in-waiting (Rickie Fowler). And, at the top of the leader board and playing in Sunday's final twosome, a hard-luck Eurostar (Sergio Garcia) and a golfing machine (Justin Rose). Man-oh-man. A garden party is about to break out.
It would be hard to bet against Rose if his Saturday form continues. His third-round 67 got him to six under par, the score he shares with Garcia. Rose, you may know, in addition to being a gold-medal-winning Olympian, is an Englishman who lives in Orlando. You know what they say about him in Orlando? Not as boring as his golf!
Yes, there is something clinical about his on-course manner and nobody would accuse him of being wildly charismatic. But he has every last shot, he answers every last question in the various and many press tents (and one press building) he visits, and he's a true gent. Proof? Main Line Philadelphia welcomed him onto the membership rolls at the Merion Golf Club after his win there in the 2013 U.S. Open. Bobby Jones, the Augusta National co-founder who completed the Grand Slam at Merion, never got such an invitation.
Sergio's third-round 70 was much more like Sergio himself, a roller-coaster ride, and the gray in his beard seemed to turn whiter as the round progressed. But he stayed dry with his second shot on par-5 13th when old bad-luck Sergio would have had to fish that same shot out of the water. The man has 22 top-10 finishes in majors, and by the end of Sunday he'll be up to 23. To win the coat he so covets he's going to have to beat his fellow Ryder Cupper as a starting point. That's asking a lot. You can win at Augusta playing emotional golf. Another Spaniard, Seve Ballesteros, proved that three times. But, sad-but-true, the clinicians fare best there. Big Jack, with his six green jackets. Tiger Woods, with his four.
The Masters has been playing like the U.S. Open for a decade now, and this year the so-called first cut—known elsewhere as rough—is particularly lush and thick. It will be an important factor on the back nine on Sunday, especially when the leaders play their second shots on 13 and 15, the two back-nine par-5s. It's not hard, and a lot of fun, to imagine Fowler, in the penultimate group, driving it long and in play on both of those holes, having putts for eagle on both, rattling at least one of the players behind him. Fowler, one back at five under, could match Rose's 67 from Saturday, post 10 under and win from the clubhouse.
Fowler has a Players Championship. He won at Honda in March against a good field. He was a Ryder Cup cog last year, and he'll be a Presidents Cup mainstay this year. He has Butch Harmon as his coach. He's already made enough money for the rest of this life and his next one. In a sense, he's playing with house money. There's good reason to think he will break 70 on Sunday. But 69 may not be enough.
There will be good scores on Sunday. It's a certainty. There's not a fluky name among the eight players who are two under or better. Any of the eight could win. Adam Scott, at three under? He's in it! Spieth at four under? Definitely! Sixty-six, baby. What a classy number.
The Augusta National bosses, keenly aware of TV ratings, are unlikely to set up the course as a torture chamber. Yes, there are traditional Sunday hole positions. But one yard here and one yard there, especially on the par-5 2nd and all the par-3s, can make the holes gettable. Survival golf will not get it done.
Speaking of survivors, let's give Hoffman his due. He's 40 and he's won six times, but he's never even sniffed a weekend leader board in a major and he didn't shoot himself out of this 81st Masters. A week ago he was a touring journeymen who had made no particular impact on the game, despite his six wins. Now, after a crazy-good 65 in a wintry wind, a back-to-earth 75 on a chilly Friday and a settle-down-now 72 on Saturday, Hoffman could still win. There's a tradition for this sort of thing: Charlie Coody (the '71 winner) and Tommy Aaron (the '73 winner), workingman golfers with second-floor lockers.
You're trying to contain your excitement, right? So is Hoffman. So is Rose. So is ... everybody. But that's what tempted you to keep coming back to Rose. One thing that comes screaming through Tiger's new book about his Masters win 20 years ago is that you have to control your heart rate to putt Augusta National's out-at-sea greens with the tournament on the line. The Rose mantra goes something like this: I've got this.
The outliers here are Spieth and Scott. That's because at Augusta, green begets green. The second one is easier to get than the first, and those two have one. They know how to play the course. They have the firepower to play the course. And they have the discipline to play away from some pins and for others. There's a reason Nicklaus won six times here. People have been saying, Imagine where Spieth would be had he made a 5 on 15 on Thursday instead of the 9 he did make? Well, the root of that quadruple bogey, he has said, was not poor swings, but poor club selection. In other words, poor thinking. Last year, he made his poor decisions on Sunday. If you're going to make some mental mistakes, better on Thursday than Sunday. His are out of his system.