Never mind that Jordan Spieth made a quadruple-bogey 9 on his 15th hole this past Thursday and was 10 shots off the first-round lead. This gritty 23-year-old Texan has been second, first and second in his first three Masters, so why would anyone be surprised Saturday that he was able to battle back into serious contention for the third major title of his already brilliant career.
On as perfect a sun-splashed day as any golfer could hope for after two rounds of chilly, blustery score-shattering winds, Augusta National was in all its glory, as was Spieth, the 2015 champion. With a 4-under-par 68 that included five birdies and several critical long par-saving putts, he’s now perfectly placed at 4-under 212 to take a rousing Sunday run at a second green jacket in the past three years.
“I’m in a great position [Sunday] to make some noise early,” he said. “I feel great. I couldn’t ask for much better than this. We fought back tremendously to have a chance to win this golf tournament, and no matter what happens at the end, we’ll have a chance to win with a really good round.”
At the end of this gorgeous afternoon, Spieth was only two shots behind the 54-hole lead of 6-under 210 shared by two formidable European foes. Justin Rose, the 36-year-old Englishman who is the defending Olympic gold medalist and 2013 U.S .Open champion, posted a 5-under 67, the day’s best round.
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And Spaniard Sergio Garcia, 37, with 28 worldwide victories no majors, had a 2-under 70 to share the lead with Rose, his Ryder Cup teammate. Garcia made a tricky six-foot par putt at the 18th hole, and when it fell into the cup, he celebrated with a telling fist pump.
American Ricky Fowler, also winless in majors, managed a 71 Saturday and was a shot behind at 5-under 211. And Spieth was in a three-way tie for fourth with Americans Charley Hoffman (72) and Ryan Moore (69). At one point on the back, Hoffman had a two-shot lead, but a double bogey with a tee shot in the pond at the 170-yard 16th cost him a piece of the lead.
Rose was brilliant on the back, with five birdies on his final seven holes, including a 15-footer at the 18th, and was obviously delighted.
“It was a joy to play today,” he said. “It’s the way you’d hope Augusta National would play. Blue skies, firm fairways and good golf is rewarded.”
Garcia was rewarded with a bogey-free back nine that included birdies at both short par 5s — the 510-yard 13th and 530-yard 15th. He was fortunate at 13 when his second shot 4-iron somehow managed not to roll back down an embankment and into the creek fronting the green. Instead, it got stuck in the grass, and he chipped to within three feet and made the birdie putt.
“Fortunately for me, that bank seems to be a tiny bit longer this year, which is nice,” he said. “But I still had to hit a great chip.”
Garcia played in the final group Saturday with Hoffman and will be out last again Sunday, paired with Rose. He’s competed in 73 majors, come close in several but has never been able to prevail.
“It was hard, but it was fun,” Garcia said. “It was fun to play very well again and go through a Saturday at the Masters with a chance to win on Sunday. I’ll play with Justin, which should be good for me, too.”
Fowler, 27, is best known for his gaudy attire and disappointing major Sunday failures. He also birdied the 13th and 15th to push close to the top. When he was in a four-way tie for the 36-hole lead, it marked the first time he’d ever led any round of a major.
Fowler has been fueled this week by the memory of the late Arnold Palmer, a man he considered a friend, mentor and unofficial grandfather. He attended Thursday’s moving morning first-tee tribute to Palmer, who died in September, and surely Fowler would exorcize many of his own major-championship demons if he could find a way to win Sunday.
“I was privileged to call [Palmer] a friend,” Fowler said. “The amount of time that I spent with him, the memories, getting to play golf with him at Seminole [in Jupiter] to hanging in the locker room and the bar at Bay Hill. … He was a special man.”
There are now eight players within five shots of the two leaders, including 2012 Masters champion Adam Scott at 3-under and 2011 winner Charl Schwartzel at 2-under. And three-time major champion Rory McIlroy, trying to complete a career grand slam with a Masters victory, is at even par and hardly discounting his chances.
“I’m going to need my best score around here, 65, if not lower to have a chance,” McIlroy said. “You just have to focus on yourself and not worry too much about what everybody else is doing.”