AUGUSTA, Ga. – Here, on a gorgeous Saturday evening, came a toxic mix: Sergio Garcia, Augusta National Golf Club, and a meaningful six-foot putt for par. These elements have long gone together about as well as a badger, a cobra and a bunny, all in a cage. The only thing you know about the result: It’s going to be ugly.
Yet in a moment when Garcia has traditionally buckled, in a place which you couldn’t blame him for abhorring, facing a shot that has vexed him his entire life, he found fortitude. That par putt at the 18th hole Saturday might not win him the Masters. But it was well worthy of the fist pump that followed it – not a thrust in the air, but a firm, confident clench.
It was the final shot of the third round of the Masters, made in the long spring shadows. What it finished was Garcia’s 70, his third straight round under par here. What it set up was more important: A Sunday he enters tied with Englishman Justin Rose, who shot the day’s best round of 67, at 6 under par. And just about every name you’d want on the leader board is there: Rickie Fowler a shot back seeking his first major championship, Jordan Spieth at 4 under and charging back from what looked to be a disastrous first round, Adam Scott quietly a shot back of that, and even Rory McIlroy at even par – a possibility, even if a distant one.
“There’s wonderful story lines,” Rose said, and his is one. A major champion, given his U.S. Open win in 2013 at Merion, but also now an Olympic gold medalist following a stirring return to the Games in Rio.
Rose is buoyed not only by the five birdies he made over an impressive back nine Saturday, but by his experience two years ago, when he had the shotgun seat next to Spieth in the final round. He shot a fine 70 then and finished 14 under – an afterthought only because Spieth tied Tiger Woods’s tournament scoring record, winning by four.
“Had a positive experience,” Rose said, and that’s his outlook in general.
That has, quite infamously, not always been Garcia’s general worldview. He arrives at Sunday morning 0 for 73 in majors, which is nothing but a cold, hard fact. But what Garcia is experiencing this week can’t quite be quantified. He simply appears to be transforming before our eyes, embracing situations he used to absolutely hate. In 18 previous Masters, he has more missed cuts (five) than top-10 finishes (three). Last year, in the third round, he produced an 81.
So it’s worth asking, as he prepares to play in the final group on the final day of the Masters for the first time: What’s your relationship with this place?
“It’s obviously improved, there’s no doubt about that,” Garcia said. “Nothing wrong with Augusta. The main thing that has improved is the way I’m looking at it the last probably two or three years – and obviously this year.
“It’s the kind of place that if you’re trying to fight against it, it’s going to beat you down. So you’ve just got to roll with it.”
This is a lesson Garcia might have learned from Spieth, even if, at 23, he is 14 years younger than the Spaniard and playing just his fourth Masters. This should be the portion of Spieth’s career when he is still figuring out Augusta National, where nuances aren’t supposed to reveal themselves so readily. The subtleties here are best understood in the low light of the late afternoon by players who have appeared in those Saturday shadows, time and again.
But here we are, early in Spieth’s career and late in this Masters, being forced to consider if a relative novice is becoming the foremost Augusta expert. There is scant evidence to the contrary. On the Saturday night of his first Masters in 2014, Spieth shared the lead with Bubba Watson. The following year, he was four ahead of Rose. Last year, he led by one.
And now, after a near-flawless 68 – the only blemish being a three-putt bogey at 16 – this will be a new experience, this whole come-from-behind thing. The obstacles are formidable. Rose posted the day’s best round. Garcia is playing better golf than he ever has around here – and actually got a break when his second shot at the par-5 13th hung up on a bank rather than dribbling into the water. Fowler is talking about his unprecedented comfort with his situation.
Yet they all must be aware of Spieth. Even though he is, in so many ways, the newbie among the top 10, he has a more consistent record of success than any of them. And he made, late Saturday evening, a fascinating point about this place: “You can’t Jordan-proof it.”
This wasn’t boastful, but was a reference to when Augusta National moved heaven and earth – don’t tell the members here they can’t do that, by the way – to lengthen the course so that Woods, the runaway winner in 1997, wouldn’t have annual walkovers every subsequent April. Spieth is by no means a short hitter, but he doesn’t overpower Augusta in the manner of Woods or Bubba Watson or Phil Mickelson, who have nine green jackets among them. Rather, his is, by comparison, a normal brand of golf – if routine brilliance can be considered ordinary.
“It’s a second-shot golf course, and he’s a good iron player,” Rose said. “He’s sharp with that. He’s got a great golfing brain. This is a very strategic golf course and you have to make good, smart decisions out there. It tempts you at times. It can dangle the carrot. You need to be on top of your thinking, and he’s very good at that. And his putting speaks for itself.”
That enough? The combination was plenty to push him up the leader board after a quadruple-bogey 9 at the par-5 15th Thursday threatened to make him an afterthought. By the time he was finishing up Saturday, Charley Hoffman – the 40-year-old journeyman who has led much of the tournament – was making bogey at 14. And when Hoffman made his only truly bad swing of the day – a 7-iron into the water at the par-3 16th that led to double bogey – Spieth moved further up. Instead of leading, Hoffman is joined by Spieth and Ryan Moore at 4 under.
“The swing on 16, it happens,” Hoffman said. “It was a bad one.”
Look at the leader board, though. There’s scarcely a lousy name on it. The penultimate group Sunday will be Fowler and Spieth, two of the game’s best young stars. The final group will be Garcia and Rose, each with their own accomplishments and burdens. On a scale of one to 10, how much fun is this?
“Eleven-and-a-half?” Fowler offered.
That’s not a bad assessment. Saturday evening, it was Garcia as the last man standing, clenching that fist.
“I don’t think it’s going to come down to just one little putt,” he said.
Maybe not. But because he made that one little putt, he has asserted himself as someone who belongs on a ridiculously good leader board at Augusta National. Pick a player to win the Masters on Thursday morning, and Garcia’s name might not have been in the top 50. Pick a player among the contenders Saturday night, and – well, let’s allow Sunday to play out. It could be an 11 1/2.