AUGUSTA, Ga. — The murmuring began at about 6:45 p.m. Saturday: Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods looked to be headed for a final-round pairing at the 2008 Masters.
Woods was at 5-under after a 68. Mickelson was 4-under, coming off back-to-back birdies and sizing up a six-foot, uphill putt for another on the 15th hole. If he could just make it and Stewart Cink could stay at 4-under and …
Mickelson pulled the putt. The crowd groaned. He tapped in for par.
Maybe it was just a hiccup. Phil was still only one good hole away from catching Tiger to set the stage for one of the most memorable Sundays of the …
Mickelson pulled his tee shot into the back bunker on 16. What did he do that for? Didn't he know that bunker was filled with quicksand? An instant double-bogey. Andres Romero, playing well ahead of Mickelson, had hit it in that thing and somehow made 5. Sure enough, Mickelson matched him.
Oh, he tried to be smart, to play for a 4, splashing out well over the front lip, his ball trickling down, down, all the way to the front of the green. But then he three-putted.
Tiger vs. Phil, 1 vs. 2, Mickelson's chances of winning his third green jacket — it all vanished in about the time it takes to make an omelet.
"I don't know where it really came from," Mickelson said of his fatal round, "because I felt like I was hitting the ball well, I was hitting some good putts."
Augusta's sneaky that way. All over the rain-doused course Saturday spectators were told to watch their footing. They fell anyway. Players told themselves the same thing; they know exactly where not to hit the ball. They fell anyway.
"You can't miss it right," Mickelson said of his 8-iron tee shot on 16 that missed right. "And I know that."
Mickelson used to be golf's Wily E. Coyote, back when he was a victim of his reckless, go-for-broke approach. But make no mistake: Saturday's implosion was about Augusta National, not the big left-hander. It was another reminder that to play this course is to defuse 18 sticks of dynamite.
"It really magnifies your mistakes," said Steve Flesch, who played in the second-to-last pairing with Mickelson and shot 69. He was at 8-under overall, three off the lead of South Africa's Trevor Immelman (69, 11-under). Brandt Snedeker (70, 9-under) was in second place.
Justin Rose attributed his 8 on the 15th hole Friday to "a 20-second lapse in concentration." That's more than enough to get you killed in NASCAR, and that's what the new National gives us: golf as car racing, with potential wrecks lurking at every turn. Take the par-5 15th hole. The leaders wanted no part of going for that green in two. The ball wasn't flying into the breeze; Flesch, Mickelson, Immelman, Snedeker, they all laid up. They didn't even have to think about it.
It didn't matter. They all knew Rose had laid up, too. The 15th green is a giant, upside-down cereal bowl. Miss short and the ball trickles back into the water. Miss long and hope your next shot doesn't go in the same water.
"It's probably the hardest 90-yard shot you'll find anywhere in golf," said Snedeker, who nonetheless conquered it, wedging to eight feet behind the cup and sinking the birdie putt. "There's no room for error."
Okay, maybe a tiny bit of room. Immelman's third shot came out too low and with too much spin, and sucked back off the front of the green, and kept rolling. Immelman and Snedeker stood frozen in the fairway, watching as the blade settings of a lawnmower helped decide the 2008 Masters. Finally the ball came to rest.
Fans are forbidden from running at Augusta National, but players jog all the time here, forever racing to mark their ball, as Ian Poulter did on 13, before gravity, grain and Rae's Creek suck them into the realm of bogey or double.
"I have no clue how that ball stayed up there," Immelman said, echoing what Fred Couples said of his own Velcro moment in 1992, "but obviously I'm thankful."
The sickening thing is, it doesn't work in reverse. This isn't the old Augusta, where it can all go right in a hurry, too. No one is making eagle on 13 and 15 in the same round anymore, or shooting 63, and it's not in the cards for Sunday, not with the forecasted 25-30 mph gusts.
The breathtaking reversals of fortune can only go one way here now — badly — no matter how easy the Lords of Augusta try to set up the course Sunday. Take a good look at your 54-hole leaderboard, store it in your mind's eye: Tiger six shots behind, Immelman clinging to a lead. It could all be as fleeting as a mood, gone as fast as Phil vs. Tiger.