AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Bubba Watson is a golfing savant, a player who always likes to boast that he never has had a lesson, never needed an instructor and plays by touch, feel and instinct.
On a preciously perfect afternoon of mild breezes and moderate heat Saturday at Augusta National, Watson looked to be in desperate need of assistance during his deflating third round in the 78th Masters. The 35-year-old 2012 champion squandered an eagle he made at No. 2 and a subsequent early five-shot lead with four front nine bogeys, and never could figure out how to conjure up some touchy-feely magic on the back side, either.
“It’s not science,” he said the other day. Yet, his nervous-Nellie play looked very much like bad science, particularly when he wasted wonderful opportunities to make birdies or better on the remaining three par-5 holes, the strength of his long-hitting game off the tee.
As a result, Watson blew the three-shot lead he owned after 36 holes and was tied at the top after 54 with 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, now himself in prime position to become the youngest Masters champion, and the first tournament rookie to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
Watson made two critical par-saving putts at 17 and 18 and managed a 2-over-par 74 and a three-day total of 5-under 211. Spieth had his third consecutive under-par round, a 70 that included critical birdies at the 14th and 15th holes. Just as significant, while Watson appeared frazzled and frustrated for most of his nerved-jangling day, Spieth had the look and calm demeanor of a 10-year Masters veteran, not a first-year competitor.
No matter what, it promises to be a fabulous final round Sunday, when weather conditions are expected to be about the same — sunny, warm and a tad breezy — but with pin placements far more precarious on warp-speed putting surfaces Spieth described afterward as “just ridiculous.”
There are now 13 players within five shots of the co-leaders, and a white-hot round by any of them could mean one of those cool green jackets added to any of their wardrobes.
“I’ve won one, so I’ve got that going for me,” Watson said. “But if I play bad [Sunday], I still have a green jacket, so that’s the positive I have to go for. We’re all trying to win the same trophy. We are all trying to do the same thing. We are all going to be nervous, and we all know what it means to our career, for our status to move forward in the game. So it’s going to be tough for everybody, not just guys that have never won one.”
The closest pursuers to Watson and Spieth are popular American Matt Kuchar, still looking for the first major title of his career, and Sweden’s Jonas Blixt, also a first-time participant here. Kuchar lost in a playoff a week ago at the Houston Open when his opponent, Australian Matt Jones, chipped in for birdie with a shot struck 42 yards from the flag.
Six days later, Kuchar came in with a 68 Saturday for a 4-under total of 212. Blixt, who played at Florid State, tied for the lead several times during the day, finished with a 71, his third straight subpar round to join Kuchar within a shot of the lead.
“I’ve been playing some nice golf now for three weeks,” said Kuchar, who tied for third here in 2012 and tied for eighth a year ago. “These greens are as fast as I ever remember seeing Masters greens, a bit on the frightening side. But it’s what we come here for. It’s very exciting to have another crack at it. … I have confidence playing golf with a chance to win. It’s a lot of maturity.”
The best round of the tournament came earlier in the day when a very mature Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain posted 6-under 66 to get within two shots of the lead at 3-under 213. At 50, he still has his hair tied in a ponytail and no doubt celebrated Saturday night with a baseball bat-sized cigar he loves to smoke on the course, as well.
But make no mistake, the man known as “The Mechanic” has all the tools necessary to contend for his first major title and become the oldest ever to win here. Jack Nicklaus, who won in 1986 at age 46, now holds that distinction.
“My game plan is to be aggressive,” Jimenez said. “A lot of things can still happen. It’s about passion and staying calm. You need to be very strong-minded. I feel great. I feel fantastic. I like the feel of the knot in my stomach.”