The blowhard 80th Masters became even windier and wilder for much of the third round Saturday at Augusta National, with flags flapping, nerves fraying and scores soaring for so many in the field.
And yet, at day’s end, one constant remained — Jordan Spieth, the 22-year-old defending champion, was still the leader for a record seventh consecutive round.
But not by much.
With a bogey, double-bogey finish, Spieth turned what had been a four-shot lead with two holes to play into a single stroke advantage over 24-year-old PGA Tour rookie Smylie Kaufman. With a third-round, 1-over-par 73 and a 54-hole total of 3-under 213, Spieth opened the door for a host of players to consider themselves potential champions when the sun goes down Sunday evening.
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Kaufman, an Alabama native and the grandson of a college golf coach playing his first Masters, was one of them after he had the only round in the 60s Saturday, a superb 69 that left him in solo second at 2-under 214. Kaufman seems a most unlikely contender, but the most intriguing pursuer of all was 58-year-old two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer, now tied for third at 1-under 215 with Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama.
Also lurking may be Spieth’s most dangerous foe of all — 28-year-old Jason Day, No. 1 in the world rankings, winner of two tournaments in a row and back in contention after a 71 that included a 70-foot birdie putt at the 14th hole that left him at even par 216, only three shots behind.
“The last three days have been really tough,” said Day, an Australian who was blown this way and that like everyone else by winds gusting to 30 mph through much of his third round. “I just kept saying to myself just keep grinding it out, just keep trying to get your birdies when you can, minimize mistakes and just be patient with yourself. [Saturday], I was very happy with it.”
Spieth, No. 2 in the world rankings, was not, especially after his stunning collapse down the stretch.
For the second day in a row, he had 30 putts (25 on Thursday) and many of them were essential to save pars. His driving was sporadic and often sprayed into the trees, though he did manage to scramble his way out of trouble time and again, at least until the last two holes.
“I played better than I scored,” Spieth insisted afterward. “It was really a tough finish. Now it’s everyone’s game.
“But I’m in the lead after 54 holes, and if you told me that at the beginning of the week, I’d have taken it.”
Spieth played in the final twosome with four-time major champion Rory McIlroy, who stumbled badly with a 77 somewhat reminiscent of his final-round 80 in 2011 when he led after 54 holes. But Spieth’s tumble at the end gave McIlroy a glimmer of hope that he can still win the green jacket and earn a career Grand Slam of all four majors. He was at 2-over 218 and five shots off Spieth’s lead.
Spieth is also trying to make history as only the fourth player to win back-to-back Masters titles, joining Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods. And if he can hang on for the victory Sunday, he will be the only man ever to win two in a row while leading in each of the tournament’s eight rounds.
With the winds expected to die down considerably for the final round, conditions should be much more manageable A predicted dead-calm day also could develop into something of a shootout, with 11 players within five shots of the lead.
Day, trying for a second consecutive major title after winning the PGA Championship in August, has also won his last two starts on the PGA Tour. If he fails Sunday, he will likely look back at playing a three-hole stretch in 5-over at the end of his first round as the main reason why. Still, he was thrilled to make that snaking 70-footer at the 14th, and just as delighted to watch Langer chip in minutes later for his own birdie at the hole.
“It was pretty cool, because he gave me knuckles on the way up,” Day said. “He’s a dominant player on the Champions Tour and No. 1 in the world himself at one point. Once again, it goes to show how competitive he is. To see a 58-year-old man be competitive with us and want it as much as he did 40 years go, is pretty impressive.”
1. Jordan Spieth
2. Smylie Kaufman
T3. Bernhard Langer
T3. H. Matsuyama
T5. Jason Day
T5. Dustin Johnson
T5. Danny Willett
Three tied at 1-over