AUGUSTA, Ga.—On Saturday afternoon the Masters announced that final round tee times will be moved up dramatically to beat an approaching doomsday storm. Augusta National also made public that the winning score would be 15-under, but due to an electronic snafu the press release was received only by GOLF.com staffers.
Armed with this knowledge, here is our guide to whom needs to do what to prevail on Sunday.
The Hail Marys, who will need a 65 to win: Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Xander Schauffele, Justin Harding. The lowest final round score by a Masters champion this century is Charl Schwartzel’s 66 in 2011. There have been a couple of 67s. Shooting a 65 with the green jacket on the line is a monumental task, but the conditions will be favorable, with soft greens in the morning. (Although that humming sound you hear right now are the SubAirs cranked all the way up in an attempt to put a little teeth back in this rain-compromised course.) Conditions could change in the early-afternoon as winds arrive ahead of the storm. Johnson (who shot 70 on Saturday) obviously has the most firepower in this group – he birdied all four par-5s on Saturday. But a bogey out of the trees on 18 was a momentum-killer. Schauffele (70), who is up to ninth in the World Ranking, went backward even more dramatically: standing in the 15th fairway he was 10-under and hunting for more. But he rinsed his approach and played a meek pitch from the drop circle, dooming himself to bogey. Then he dropped another shot at 18 out of the fairway bunker. “You never know what can happen around here,” Johnson said Saturday evening, trying to sound hopeful. “I’m going to have to go out and shoot a very good score, but it’s definitely doable.”
Bottom line: A DJ charge would be great fun but his game isn’t quite sharp enough to cover so much ground.
The Grinders, who need a 66 to win: Webb Simpson and Ian Poulter. On Saturday, Simpson played some utterly electric golf. Beginning on No. 7 he went 8-under in the span of 10 holes, powering to a 64 to jump from the middle of the pack to a tie for fifth. One of golf’s hoariest clichés is that it’s hard to follow-up a really low round with another. Is Webb Simpson really going to be the guy who bucks tradition? Poulter (68) had a dream pairing, alongside Tiger Woods. It could have been the match-play scenario to engage Poult’s Ryder Cup mojo, but Tiger refused to play along, largely ignoring his playing partner. Thus deflated, Poulter opened with seven straight pars, but then he patiently picked apart the course. As an average-length hitter, he is playing a different game than many of the bombers on the leaderboard; Poulter laid-up on both par-5s on the front-nine. Is he going to be more aggressive on Sunday? “No, I’m going to try and par every hole,” he said. Good one, Poults. He added,”Tee to green I’m playing well, I just need to hole a couple more putts and hopefully have a chance.”
Bottom line: It’s fun to have both of these gritty competitors in the mix but they’re a little too far back.
The Brooder, who needs a 67 to win: Brooks Koepka. Big, bad Brooks looked like the man to beat after a flawless 66, but Saturday was a wild ride, as Koepka made only one par in his first eight holes. He was losing touch with the leaders after making his fourth bogey of the day, on 14, but a rousing eagle on the next hole got him back in the fight. Afterward, Koepka was ruing “sloppy mistakes.” It will take a very tidy round for him continue his rampage in the major championships. Is he fired-up to battle this star-studded leaderboard? “I could care less,” Koepka said, remaining very on-brand.
Bottom line: A victory would be an epic rebuttal to Brandel Chamblee’s recent put-downs, but that might be the only reason to root for Koepka.
The Underdog and the GOAT, who need a 68 to win: Tony Finau and Tiger Woods. Big Tony started a 62 watch by playing his first eight holes in six-under. He cooled off in the middle of the round but nabbed two more birdies coming in for a scorching 64. There is nothing not to love about this gentle giant, but he owns exactly one career victory. Is Finau going to stare down a bunch of the game’s best players to make the Masters win number two? That’s a big ask.
As for Woods, he was magnificent during the third round, making six birdies en route to a 67. A win here would be arguably the greatest triumph of a legendary career—a perfect bookend to Woods’s victory in 1997, which reinvented the sport in his image. The key for Woods’s march up the leaderboard has been his putter. He missed a handful of shorties en route to a disappointing opening round 70, but some mid-range bombs keyed his follow-up 68 and on Saturday he was perfect inside of 10 feet on greens that are slower, grainier and bumpier than usual. Can Woods will into the hole all the putts that matter, just as in the old days? It’s the biggest question heading into a day that threatens to be epic.
Bottom line: Woods is the most dominant golfer in history. But, 11 years removed from his last major championship victory, he knows he will be jittery. He welcomes the feeling. “I always feel pressure,” he said Saturday night. “The day I don’t feel pressure is the day I quit. I always thought that if you care about something, obviously you’re going to feel pressure. And I’ve always felt it, from the first time I remember ever playing a golf tournament to now. That hasn’t changed.”
The Golfing Machine, who needs a 70 to win: Francesco Molinari. The champion golfer of last year is looking for another scalp. This is the sum total of golfers who have won the Masters and an Open at fearsome Carnoustie: Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Tom Watson. If Molinari joins that list, that says it all about the caliber of his golf. With a two-stroke lead, he can play his usual pressure-proof, fairways-and-greens game. Molinari has made exactly one bogey across the first three rounds, and none in his last 43 holes. (Gasp.) He is also armed with the powerful knowledge that he can beat Tiger head-to-head, as he did in the final round at Carnoustie, when he was markedly better than Woods in every aspect of the game. (Frankie beat Tiger three more times at the Ryder Cup a few months later.) Yet Molinari downplayed talk that he is in Woods’s head. “It’s golf,” he said. “So the favorite is probably the golf course out there waiting for us.”
Obviously it’s nice to be a little bit ahead, but you might just need one hole to change. You never know how it’s going to go, especially around a course like here. So I think the key for me is going to go out tomorrow and just do my thing. Keep staying aggressive like I was trying to be today. Hit the shots. Hit the middle of the clubface as often as I can and make smart decisions, and we’ll just take it from there.”
Bottom line: Barring freaky weather, or interference by the ghost of Greg Norman, it feels like 70 is the worst score Molinari can shoot. That feels like the right number at the right time.
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