Justin Rose and Sergio García Top Leaderboard at Masters


“It was there for the taking,” Rose said, referring to the picturesque conditions. “If you played great, you got rewarded.”

He added, “If I had been two or three shots behind, I still would have felt I was in great position.”

Funny that Rose should say that, because the leaderboard is as clogged as the traffic outside the course on Washington Road, with Bugattis and Ferraris and Teslas backed up behind the front-runners. Their 14 nearest challengers include four former Masters champions (Jordan Spieth, Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel and Fred Couples), as well as Rory McIlroy, who could complete a career Grand Slam with a victory here.

Spieth, 23, posted a four-under 68 while grouped with Phil Mickelson, 46, in a pairing that drew the largest gallery. Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion, birdied the first two holes but played the next seven in five over. He equaled Spieth’s one under on the back nine, but the damage was done: Mickelson’s 74 left him outside the top 20 at two over.

Spieth, the 2015 champion, was in the final pairing on Sunday in each of his first three trips to Augusta National. So playing from behind will be a novel, and not unpleasant, experience.

“I plan to play aggressive because, at this point, it’s win or go home,” Spieth said.

Sunday would have been the 60th birthday of Seve Ballesteros, the two-time Masters champion who died of brain cancer in 2011. Will García celebrate his idol’s birthday by winning his first major title in his 74th attempt? In his 73 previous starts, García has been a runner-up four times, with 22 top-10 finishes. On Saturday, he cleared a significant mental hurdle that has clipped his progress time and again. Before this year, his career average here in the third round was 74.92 strokes.

“I’m glad I took the scoring average down a bit,” García said.

He added that his relationship with Augusta National, which, in 2009, he disparaged as “too tricky,” had improved.

“I think it’s the kind of place that if you are trying to fight against it, it’s going to beat you down,” he said. “So you’ve just got to roll with it.”

García, 37, is one of the game’s best ball strikers, but under pressure, his putter has been known to revolt. He, no doubt, would love to win his first major just to get people to stop referring to his near miss at the 2007 British Open, when he missed a 10-footer for par to fall into a playoff, which he lost to Padraig Harrington.

García’s nerve was tested early. On the front nine, he sank a 38-footer for birdie on the par-4 fifth, but he also faced four par putts between seven and nine feet, a distance from which he is in the bottom half of the 53-man field that remains. He made the first three but two-putted from seven feet for a bogey on the ninth to drop out of the lead. He also drained a nervy five-footer for bogey on No. 7.

Walking off the tee on the par-5 eighth hole, García and Charley Hoffman had a laughter-filled exchange. It is probably not a coincidence that García went on to put the bogey behind him with a two-putt birdie from inside 50 feet.

In a 2007 interview with Golf.com, García said that his game was affected by his grouping — he plays better with people whose company and conversation he enjoys, explaining, “Those good vibes and bad vibes affect my game.”

A golfer would have to be wound tighter than the inside threads of a golf ball not to have a good time playing with Hoffman, who was so loose during his first-round 65 that he noticed a friend in his gallery and acknowledged him by bringing his middle finger up to his nose.

If only McIlroy could see Augusta National like the 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles that he and his family work on back at their rental house — as a challenge meant to be fun. McIlroy said after his second-round 73 that he was confident he could vault up the leaderboard with a score in the 60s.

It turned out to be wishful thinking. McIlroy, a four-time major winner, birdied two of the first three holes but could not mount a concerted challenge. His 71 left him six strokes back.

“My best score here is 65,” McIlroy said, “and I’m going to need something like that, if not lower, to have a chance.”

The first player out Saturday was third-ranked Jason Day, whose stated goal was to finish ahead of his marker, Jeff Knox, an Augusta National member who plays with the last-place golfer when there is an odd number left in the field. Knox accompanied, and beat, McIlroy in 2014, when McIlroy was No. 1.

“He said he was nervous on the first tee, and I’m like in my head thinking, ‘I’m kind of nervous because I don’t want my marker to beat me,’” said Day, who also wanted to atone for his second-round 76.

He posted the number for the other 52 players to shoot for, a 69 that included a near ace on the sixth and four consecutive birdies starting at No. 12.

“I feel like I can actually play golf again,” said Day, who, at three over, did not consider his cause lost. “Anything can happen on Sunday at Augusta,” he said.

With everything that already has happened — tornado watches and quadruple bogeys; the world No. 1, Johnson, not making it to Thursday; and the 2016 champion, Danny Willett, not making it to Saturday — the script this year seems to have foreshadowed a frenzied finish.

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