Ominous weather skirted Augusta National Golf Club Saturday, allotting day-two leader Patrick Reed a window of calm conditions on which he capitalized to the tune of a 5-under 67 and a three-shot lead.
Reed’s pair of back-nine eagles catapulted him to the top of a then-congested leader board. Northern Irelander Rory McIlroy, American Rickie Fowler and Spaniard Jon Rahm each shot 65, placing significant scoring pressure on Reed throughout the drizzly round, but he proved up to the challenge.
Had he not bookended his eagles with a pair of untimely bogeys on holes 12 and 16, Reed’s lead heading into Sunday’s final round might have been insurmountable. As it is, Sunday’s finale at the 2018 Masters Tournament promises to be must-see theater.
Reed kicked off his eagle run in round three with a beautifully drawn approach to the green on the par-5 13th hole from a lie well above his feet. When he calmly drained the mid-range eagle putt to card a three, he had opened up a four-shot advantage over McIlroy.
The brash young American then left himself out of position with his drive on the 14th hole. With a well-positioned Georgia pine tree blocking his path to the green, Reed’s hooked recovery shot found the far-right side of the putting surface, but the pin was on the far left. Hills and valleys separated him from the hole – some 98 feet away. It looked as though he would give back at least one shot, but Reed’s putt snuggled up to just a couple feet from the hole. He would save par.
Reed’s poorly struck drive on the next tee seemed to be evidence of fraying nerves, until he then hit his second shot. His booming, 270-yard 3-wood second pitched on a mound just right of the green, which is guarded by water in front. His check-and-release chip shot tracked to the hole in putt-like fashion, before crashing into the pin and dropping in for Reed’s second eagle in three holes.
The lead was then five shots, and it suddenly appeared that neither the weather nor stress would force Reed to slip back to the field. His deft touch would not numb; his hot hand would not cool.
Reality came knocking in the guise of a three-putt bogey on the par-3 16th hole, but Reed would par home from there to retain his well-earned spot in the final Sunday pairing.
McIlroy was pin high on the ever-difficult 18th hole as Reed faced down a tricky putt for par on 17. A two-putt would have sufficed to give McIlroy a final-round date with Reed, but he drained his 15-foot birdie putt for good measure. Reed had obviously heard the crowd’s roar from his position, and he must have known what was happening ahead. He steeled himself and saved par, though, giving a preview of the potential final-round brawl to come.
This is not the Ryder Cup, however. It isn’t Sunday singles, and neither man in the final pairing is assured of anything.
Tommy Fleetwood, Bubba Watson and Marc Leishman all have outside shots at a Green Jacket. The trio sits in a tie for sixth place at 6-under par, some eight shots behind the leader. Improbable though a win from their position may seem, it is not unheard of. Jackie Burke, Jr. set the comeback record at the 1957 Masters, erasing an eight-shot deficit to defeat Ken Venturi.
To match Burke’s mark, one of those players must leapfrog McIlroy, Fowler and Rahm. Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, whose scores of 69, 70 and 70 are too patently consistent to ignore, also stands in their way. Stenson is in 5th place alone, seven shots off the lead at 7-under par, but Reed’s most realistic threat comes from McIlroy.
It has been some time since McIlroy was in this position at Augusta National. In his post-round comments, McIlroy said he has learned much since he was last in the final group on Sunday at the Masters in 2011. The then-21-year-old’s collapse that day was difficult to watch, as he failed to break 80 and gave away a first major title.
Of course, McIlroy’s redemption was swift. He won that season’s next major – the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club – and now lacks only a Green Jacket to become the first player to join the list of immortals who have won the career grand slam since Tiger Woods did it in 2000.
If any of those scenarios are to transpire, Reed must suffer a final round akin to McIlroy’s in 2011. He must have a collapse of van de Veldian proportions, but that does not seem likely. If Reed’s competitors want this championship, they must play the round of their lives on Sunday. The brand of golf that Patrick Reed has displayed to this point at the 2018 Masters has simply been that good.