We’ve all had a refresher course on how The Masters doesn’t truly begin until the back nine on Sunday. That doesn’t mean that Saturday falls from importance. To the contrary, more than a handful of golfers seized the opportunity to separate a bit from the field and insert themselves into the Sunday conversation.

Curious? Let’s see what we learned on Day 3 of the 81st Masters.

Odds are that a fresh Masters champion will emerge

Just barely, though. Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth and Charl Schwartzel each played their way into contention on Day 3. Winners of three of the past six playings, each of that trio went into the 60s to move within three strokes of the lead. On the other hand, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia occupy the top three spots on the leaderboard. Rose has the most success in events of this stature, with a U.S. Open and an Olympic gold medal on his resume. Also in the hunt are Charley Hoffman and Ryan Moore. Moore was quite decorated as an amateur but little more than a journeyman pro until his 2016 Ryder Cup heroics. Hoffman had the opportunity to play alongside eventual champion Jordan Spieth in 2015, doubtless gleaning wisdom from the opportunity.

When you don’t know what you don’t know

Your name is Rory McIlroy, or Thomas Pieters, or Jon Rahm. The last two can be forgiven their missteps. They are novice Masters contestants and their urgent rises and falls can be attributed to a scant understanding and appreciation of the vagaries and nuances of the greens, the winds, the patron reactions and other elements of this singular event. Pieters twice reached 4-under par this week, and twice dropped 3-4 strokes on the inward half. Rahm inched to 2-under on multiple occasions, but was never able to sustain that number, much less go deeper. We will find out next year what they’ve learned from Masters 1.0.

McIlroy is a much more perplexing study. With the departure of Dustin Johnson on Thursday, the Ulsterman became the favorite to win in the eyes of many. Rory reached red figures at the third hole on Saturday, but gave two back with a double bogey at the 7th. He fought back to even par, but unless a Sunday 63 sits quietly in his bag, 2017 will pass without a career grand slam for the media-heir apparent to Tiger’s crown.

Does Westwood have a career round in him?

No one wants to be the next coming of Monty, a Brit with superior skills but an inability to close out a major title. Westwood has been close in many, and he has also been quite distant (as he was last fall at the Ryder Cup, when his putting was symptomatic of St. Vitus’ dance.) On this third day, Westwood signed for 68 and moved to red figures, five shots behind the lead. It’s almost too much to hope that the European stalwart might summon his best and emerge from a crowded and talented field. It will take a round deep into the 60s to offer any chance at immortality. It has happened before, for lesser golfers, so perhaps it’s finally Lee’s time.

There’s much to be said for mellow

Fred Couples has been the master of mellow for his entire career. While it only earned him one major title, he certainly won his share of tour events. For yet another year, the Washington state native played himself into contention. He went for the gusto at “The Locker” (holes Nos. 15 and 16, if you haven’t heard) but the pairing of double bogey with bogey dropped him from 2-under to 1-over and out of contention.

A fellow mellow aspirant is first-time participant William McGirt, who earned his invitation with a win at the 2016 Memorial. He promised to enjoy the walks around the course and to soak up as much of the Masters experience as possible. As late as the 16th hole on Saturday, McGirt stood 2-under, but closing bogeys at Nos. 17 and 18 dropped him back. Still, he’ll have one more walk around the nursery on Sunday, and you can bet he’ll be relaxed.

Sunday pairings and some closing thoughts

Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia will go off last, preceded immediately by Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth, with Ryan Moore and Charley Hoffman in the antepenultimate duo. Those matches could not set up any better for the six. Rose and Garcia have been European Ryder Cup teammates for over a decade. Fowler and Spieth represent much of the present and future of American golf, and Moore and Hoffman are two guys who should have no real shot at being here, but here is exactly where they are.

So here’s the prediction: one of those pairings will feature a shootout for the ages. It will resemble the Stenson-Mickelson duel of Open Championship 2016… and may even surpass it. Rarely are so many golfers so well matched. Masters Sunday should surpass even these highlights!

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  1. How is any pairing going to “resemble” Stenson/Mickelson? Considering it was arguably the greatest Sunday ever played by a pairing in major championship history, don’t you feel like your reaching just a tad? Just curious why media members in general always want to compare/contrast instead of just letting it be judged on its own merit? But, I know if it is going to be mentioned in the same breath as Stenson/Mickelson, it’s going to be a birdie fest & nobody will take their eyes off of the tv today. Happy Masters Sunday to all!

    • Prime21,

      Excellent question and kudos for following up with solid support. Here’s my rejoinder: we’re at the water cooler and I’m on a bit of a brag. I’m not an investigative reporter, and the world’s security will never depend on the words I write. You fire back at me “Dude, no way. And why you all about making comparisons and contrasts?” And I respond with:

      Not all media members do this, just some of us;
      If I’m correct, you will hold me in higher regard as a soothsayer (or a lucky SOB, one or the other);
      I have a hunch, and it’s a big one, that rarely do you get two pairing, let alone three, where the golfers are supremely comfortable together. I even forgot the UNLV connection with Moore-Hoffman.

      And that’s the way it is. I’m Walter Cronkite.

  2. The course set up doesn’t have enough rough, and the bunkers are too perfect and all are getting out far too easily with pretty shots. Trees and pine straw, yes, but not enough rough to catch everybody off guard and cut their distances. Too easy to hit out of the pine straw and too easy to hit out of the rough and sand. There was no need to really ruin the course by changing some of the holes’ shapes by adding odd trees and jut-out pine straw areas – why don’t they just grow the rough 2 more inches in all areas and force the players to hack it out? That’ll put so much more premium on driving accuracy, they will all think twice about bombing and gouging it, hoping the ball would run out into the pine straw (and on so many occasions, the rough doesn’t catch it because it’s non-existant). Instead of just lengthening some holes, they could just as easily have tightened the holes by bringing the rough in. It’s such a strange tournament now, seeing some of them hit driver & 5/6 iron on holes like 15.

    • And make it like every other wretched, punitive, monotonous, hack-out course that used to host a US Open? Put more premium on driving accuracy, like Winged Foot in 1974 and 2006? Yay. You need a trip to the great links courses stat. Augusta has more in common with them than American rough houses, despite the waterworks of RTJ Senior.

      • BB,

        You nailed it. Not a pushover, very walkable for the patrons, given the hills. The Masters is equal parts tournament, patron event, viewer event. Big-picture thinking is required here. I used to love years when eagles landed on all the par fives, but I’m quite happy with this year’s event, too.

      • Errrr, i think the weather from the first two days has something to do with the scores? And it’s a big putting contest, and the greens are playing especially tricky as well, with the weather affecting the ball, as we saw on the first two days where some of the balls were seen to be oscillating and in danger of rolling away.
        But, to be fair, seeing the ball bounce from the fairway through the “rough” into the pine straw on more than enough occasions makes you wonder why they even have any short rough at all