AUGUSTA, Ga. — Even without golf’s biggest star, this suddenly is shaping up as a Masters for the ages.
Jordan Spieth, playing a brand of big-time golf that belies his 20 years, kept his cool amid the chaos of Saturday at Augusta National. He was too busy trying to handle a lightning-fast golf course to even look at a leaderboard until he couldn’t avoid them over the closing holes of a wild round.
His name at the top with Bubba Watson was compelling enough.
It’s been 83 years since a player this young won a major, and 35 years since anyone won the Masters on his first try.
Two shots behind was 50-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain, rattling off seven birdies for a tournament-best 66 that gave him a shot at becoming the oldest winner in 154 years of championship golf. And still very much in the picture is Fred Couples, the 54-year-old who won his green jacket a year before Spieth was born.
The only mention of Tiger Woods, absent from Augusta National for the first time in 20 years, was whether Spieth could replace him as the youngest Masters champion.
“For a 20-year-old, he’s pretty savvy. Not much bothers him,” said Couples, who picked Spieth for the Presidents Cup. “Tomorrow obviously is going to be a really, really hard day to try to win this. But he’s well qualified to do it.”
Spieth, who has broken par in all three rounds, managed one last par from the deep fairway bunker on the 18th hole for a 2-under 70.
That gave him a share of the lead with Watson, whose five bogeys in a round of 74 brought so many players back into the mix. Watson had a three-shot lead at the start of the third round. When he walked off the 18th green with a par, nine players were separated by three shots.
Spieth and Watson were at 5-under 211.
“Today was moving day,” Spieth said. “And tomorrow is about seeing how I can control my game and emotions out on the golf course against guys that have even won here recently. So they have been in the position I haven’t. Doesn’t necessarily mean — I don’t think — that they have an advantage in any way. I think that I’m very confident in the way things are going. And really looking forward to tomorrow.”
Woods was 21 when he won his first Masters in 1997. Spieth would be the youngest major champion since Tom Creavy, who was a few months younger than Spieth when he won the 1931 PGA Championship.
But there’s a lot of traffic on the road to a green jacket, mostly because of Watson.
He stretched his lead to five shots with a 7-iron to 6 feet for eagle on the second hold. He made only one birdie the rest of the way, a round sprinkled with putts that he either rammed too hard or left woefully short. Even so, the former Masters champion was right where he wanted to be.
“If somebody told me I would have shot 2 over and still be tied for the lead, I would have taken it in a heartbeat,” Watson said. “So I got a shot on Sunday.”
So do so many others.
Matt Kuchar, who squandered chances to win in each of the last two weeks, hit a pitch from well behind the 15th green that had to be perfect and was, setting up the best of his six birdies in a round of 68. Kuchar, a favorite in these parts from his days at Georgia Tech, was one shot behind along with Masters rookie Jonas Blixt, who fell out of the lead with a bogey on the 17th and shot 71.
Jimenez, who finished his round about the time the leaders teed off, was two shots back at 3-under 213 with Rickie Fowler (67). Lee Westwood, in that small class as the best players without a major, had a 70 and was at 214 with Jim Furyk (72) and Thomas Bjorn (73).
“Bubba at this point is keeping me in it,” U.S. Open champion Justin Rose said after his 69, leaving him only four shots behind. “There’s a lot of players with a chance tomorrow. Anybody under par going into tomorrow has a good shot.”
That would not include defending champion Adam Scott, who might have thrown away his hopes with a 40 on the front nine that led to a 76. He was six shots behind.
Spieth fell in love with Augusta National the first time he saw it during a golfing trip last October. He has leaned on two-time champion and fellow Texas Longhorn Ben Crenshaw in practice rounds, and he met with six-time champion Jack Nicklaus on Wednesday to learn as much as he could.
The kid is a quick study.
He didn’t even have a PGA Tour card at this time last year. Since then, he won the John Deere Classic, became the youngest American to play in the Presidents Cup when Fred Couples made him a captain’s pick, and had a chance in the final hour to win the FedEx Cup and its $10 million prize.
Phil Mickelson might have seen this coming. He was paired with Spieth the last day of the Deutsche Bank Championship in September, when the kid shot 62. Mickelson called Couples and said, “Dude, you’ve got to pick this guy.”
Now, the young Texan has a good shot to join them in the champions’ locker room.
Saturday at the Masters
LEADING: Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth, at 5-under 211
JUST BEHIND: Matt Kuchar and Jonas Blixt, a shot back at 212.
ROOKIES RISE: Spieth and Blixt have a chance to become the first rookie to win the Masters since Fuzzy Zoeller won in 1979.
SHOT OF THE DAY: Kuchar’s chip from behind the green on No. 15 that settled a few feet from the hole for a birdie.
NOTEWORTHY: Two players with a chance to become the oldest major champions ever are within striking distance. Miguel Angel Jimenez is two shots back at the age of 50, while 54-year-old Fred Couples is four back.
KEY STATISTIC: Fifteen players are within five shots of the lead.
KEY HOLE: No. 14, 440 yards, par 4; stroke average of 4.24; ranked 6th toughest; Spieth made the first of his two straight birdies on the tough par 4, allowing him to climb into a tie for the lead. Kuchar also birdied both holes and was tied for the lead before making bogey on No. 18.
QUOTEWORTHY: “You always have that dream as a kid when you’re growing up, so when you get here, you hear the same roars and you want to be part of those roars.” — Bubba Watson.
PAIRINGS: Matt Kuchar, Jonas Blixt, 2:30 p.m.; Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson, 2:40 p.m.
TELEVISION:2-7 p.m., Channel 19.