It will be an all-Euro final grouping on Sunday at the 2017 Masters Tournament, as England’s Justin Rose and Spaniard Sergio Garcia sit atop the leaderboard after a wild Saturday at Augusta. Charley Hoffman, who had led after round one and co-led after round two, fell back three spots to T-4, tied with Jordan Spieth and Ryan Moore. Rickie Fowler sits alone in third place heading into Sunday’s finale — which should be one for the ages.
Rose played the front nine on Saturday at even par, and was quietly in the mix at even par for the tournament before lighting up the back nine. He played inspired, flawless golf while carding five back-nine birdies, including both of the final holes. As the winner of the 2013 U.S. Open, Rose already has his major. How much of an advantage that fact will be depend much on his playing partner.
Garcia played like a man on a mission Saturday. He has always been the type of player that lives and dies on every shot, and a bit of that youthful impetuousness was evident on missed putts and errant shots on Saturday, but he gathered himself before his next shot each time. Of course, a little luck does not hurt. Garcia’s second-shot approach to the par-5 13th had no business hanging up on the steep bank of Rae’s Creek, which protects the green, but it did. For every bad break the game dishes out, it eventually seems to hand out a great one. The key is to seize the advantage, which Garcia did on his pitch up to a tap-in birdie. If he can continue playing with maturity through the final 18 holes on Sunday, he should be in the hunt for his first major title. His play on Saturday was a touch of class.
Spieth seemed to conjure his play from the past three Masters on his way to a 4-under-par 68. Minus two big numbers, he has played Augusta as well as anyone ever has in his four Masters, showing uncanny wizardry in dissecting some of the most difficult holes in all of golf. When Spieth took a quadruple bogey on the par-5 fifth hole to start the 2017 Masters, it looked as if he might not be over his collapse on Sunday of 2016. Spieth is too young to be bothered by demons, though, or perhaps he is simply impervious to them.
Fowler had an up-and-down third round, trading two birdies for two bogeys on the front nine and going 1-under on the back to move to 5-under par and second place alone, with a date in the penultimate group on Sunday with Spieth. Fowler has been one of the hottest players on the PGA Tour this season, and a Masters victory would cement his place among the best in the game today. He had only one blemish on his back nine Saturday — a bogey on the par-4 10th. He has the length and the imagination for Augusta, but the Sunday pin positions will test everyone.
Ryan Moore quietly played his way onto the first page of the leaderboard, shooting 3-under 69 to get to 4-under par for the tournament. Moore’s unique swing is emblematic of his calm demeanor, and his arrow-straight ball flight is perfect for a Sunday at Augusta. Errant shots that find the second cut are fine, but the pines and pine straw can give players fits. Moore’s tee shots usually keep him in play, and now they have him in contention at the Masters.
Hoffman came out swinging on Saturday, grabbing the early lead with birdies on holes two and four, but a three-jack on the par-3 sixth hole brought him back to 5-under par and a tie for the lead with playing partner Garcia. Hoffman got back to 7-under par for a while but, with hot players breathing down his neck, he found the pond at the par-3 16th and took a double bogey to fall to 4-under par, two shots out of the lead. Hoffman did enough early on to absorb his later struggles. Call the double bogey a body blow.
The players at the top have no guarantees to stay there Sunday. There are some great players clawing at the leaders’ heels, waiting for the slightest opening to steal some thunder, and maybe the green jacket. Masters champions Adam Scott (-3) and Charl Schwartzel (-2) know how to finish at Augusta, and Lee Westwood (-1) has the greatest impetus of all the players in the red on Sunday — time. At age 43, he has yet to cull his own major championship, and will be pressing to make his first one a Masters.
Sunday looks to be one of the most exciting Masters final rounds in a long time. In a year when golf fans reflected on anniversaries and legends now gone, the 2017 Masters had big shoes to fill. That it will fill them is not a forgone conclusion, but it has earned its stripes so far.