Jordan Spieth faces fight for Masters after Justin Rose charge
This has finally turned into the Masters it had always threatened to be.
Just when it looked like only a complete capitulation from Jordan Spieth, or sheer brilliance from elsewhere, would deny him the maiden major success he would cherish so much, a snap warning was fired from the golfing gods. This was a stark reminder that no championship is complete until hands are shaken on Sunday or, in specific regards to this event, a cringe-inducing ceremony in the Butler Cabin has been played out.
Playing his 17th third-round hole, Spieth held an advantage of seven. He had looked utterly unflappable. The first serious aberrations of the week from the 21-year-old followed, as he made a double bogey. Up ahead, was about to hole a glorious birdie putt to complete his day’s work in 67. Time will tell how pertinent Rose’s intervention there was.
In his approach to that final green, Spieth found himself so far right he needed to remove items of gallery furniture before addressing his ball. The recovery was nerveless, with both chip and single putt. The lead is now four, enough to make Spieth the firm favourite but also to trigger thoughts of an epic finale. , at 11 under par, is five adrift and very much part of this discussion as he seeks what would be a fourth Masters success.
In this late, gripping Saturday closing spell, it was almost lost that Spieth has created another record. His 54-hole total of 200 strokes is one better than has ever been produced before. At 16 under, Spieth is only two short of the finest 72-hole tally in Masters history. He could yet become the second youngest winner. But in doing so, Spieth is going to have to withstand the most ferocious of pressure from players who suddenly scent victory of their own.
Before this unforeseen wobble, the key to Spieth’s dominance of Augusta National had been composure. For someone of his age and relative inexperience in such a pressured scenario, this was quite remarkable. The question is whether matters of the mind played a part on the 17th green, where he missed a tiny putt for bogey, or he was overdue an error.
Earlier, when some of the most stellar names in this sport – Tiger Woods, and Mickelson among them – sought to worry the young leader, he held firm. When it seemed as if Spieth’s advantage was being eroded, the reality was to the contrary. He atoned immediately for any errors.
Rose now has nothing to lose. The 2013 US Open winner arrived in Georgia with next to no form at all, other than of the negative kind, but has blasted his way into second place with some nerveless golf. Merion two years ago showed every onlooker than Rose knows how to prevail when the heat is on. And here on Sunday here, how it will be.
Mickelson’s aim was straightforward; to partner Spieth in round four’s final group. He looked to have earned that right with a 67, which appeared in typically flamboyant style, before Rose upstaged the American. Augusta’s crowds may have been quietly disappointed.
On the grounds of Masters experience if not score, Mickelson would seem the biggest danger to Spieth. How the old hand seeks to apply pressure to someone more than 20 years his junior promises to be quite a spectacle. It is also a nod to one of the beauties of golf; in almost every other sport, that age gap would prove prohibitive to competition.
In the midst of all this is Charley Hoffman, who may be the player afforded the least coverage in history when so prominent at Augusta. Hoffman has appeared in only one Masters before, in which he finished in a share of 27th. That was, in fact, his finest major placing. Surely a serious improvement beckons on Sunday; Hoffman lies fourth for now.
Before this bout of late drama, we had been afforded supposedly lost glimpses of vintage Woods. He played the front nine in 32, with a fist-pump following the birdie on 13 which prompted dreams of the impossible. Woods reached seven under par with that putt; his closing tally was a stroke worse off, which leaves him realistically playing for second.
The more pertinent picture, though, relates to the 39-year-old swatting aside any notion that he cannot possibly be a golfing force once again. For Woods, the Open Championship at a venue he adores – St Andrews – already cannot come around quickly enough. The palpable interest and glee around his every Augusta move this week has offered evidence of why golf is a better place with Woods around.
McIlroy’s 68 seemed to prompt bittersweet emotion. Not for the first time here, a quick run of holes has undermined his chances of competing for a Green Jacket. On this occasion, Friday’s front nine was where the damage was done.
Still, the world No1 has not earned such status without a fight. A front half of 32 in round three ensured back-to-back halves totalling just 63. McIlroy could not do better than level par from there onwards, placing him on the same aggregate as Woods. Their feelings are altogether different, a consequence of the impact success has had on the Northern Irishman’s ambition. Woods will play with McIlroy on day four, a terrific prospect in itself.
“I definitely feel like I play this golf course better and better every year that I come here,” McIlroy said. “I don’t know, I just need to keep putting numbers up like I did today. I know I’m capable of it. Just a few stretches of holes have held me back and that’s really been the case this year again.”
Mickelson and Spieth played together during a Tuesday, friendly fourball match which also involved Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson. Five days on, and with Rose a key part of the competitive dynamic, how the stakes have been enhanced.