Saturday 20 January 2018

Bubba shares lead in tight Masters

Bubba Watson feels the heat during yesterday’s third round. Reuters
Bubba Watson feels the heat during yesterday’s third round. Reuters
Jordan Spieth waits to play his tee shot on the fourth hole during the third round of the 2014 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 12, 2014 in Augusta, Georgia. Photo: Getty Images
Bubba Watson reacts after his ball stopped short of a birdie putt on the 12th green. Photo: AP
Bubba Watson removes his hat after finishing his play in the third round of the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. Reuters
U.S. golfer Bubba Watson hits his tee shot on the fifth hole during the third round of the Masters golf tournament

Dermot Gilleece at Augusta National

As balmy sunshine gave way to the chill of evening, conjestion ruled the third-round leaderboard in the 78th US Masters. With Bubba Watson relinquishing his overnight lead, he was joined by Jordan Spieth at the head of the field, on five under par.

Only two strokes seperating the top six players gives promise of a tense climax this afternoon. Still, there was no doubting the drop in excitement levels, caused by the weekend absence of both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson for the first time since 1994.

Watson made a splendid up and down at the last, but frailty with the blade had earlier proved costly on seriously slick greens. As third-placed Matt Kuchar remarked: "These greens were as fast as I've ever seen – a bit on the frightening side." Thomas Bjorn was among the casualties, dropping three strokes from the 13th in.

In these circumstances, there was tremendous merit in the performance of 50-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez, whose brilliant 66 contained a sparkling homeward journey of 32. Main attention, however, is certain to focus on the wonderfully consistent Spieth who, at only 20, has the chance of becoming the youngest-ever champion.

Meanwhile, in times dominated by snail-paced golf, Rory McIlroy carded a 71 in a time of three hours and five minutes. And all the more interesting was that he did it in the company of a host-club marker, who had the effrontery to beat him both in medal and matchplay.

Jeff Knox, a 51-year-old amateur, is no stranger to such assignments. In fact he filled the role of marker for Bubba Watson on Masters Saturday last year and for Keegan Bradley the following day. Though there is no official champion at Augusta National, he has won the club's top competition, the better-ball Jamboree, several times.

"Jeff is a great player," said McIlroy, who appeared a lot more at peace wth the world than he had been after scraping through on the qualifing limit on Friday evening. "I thought he was going to be nice and three-putt the last and we would have had a half, but he beat me by one."

McIlroy, who has set himself the target of a top-10 finish today, went on: "I don't think I've ever seen anyone putt these greens as well as he does." Then, with a smile: "I was thinking of maybe getting him to read a few of my putts out there."

It seems that Knox has not always left his Masters playing partners in the sort of bright mood projected by McIlroy. For instance, when he played with Sergio Garcia in the final round in 2006, it was rumoured that Knox got the better of a little financial interest on their duel, though he would admit only to have played "pretty well." And the Spaniard was apparently unaware he was facing an opponent who had set the course record of 61 around Augusta four years previously, albeit off the members tees.

When Knox marked for Jimenez, he outdrove him on the first, prompting the affable "Mechanic" to wag a finger accompanied by the gentle reprimand: "Don't you dare outdrive me!" But there no chance of a repeat performance against McIlroy, who smashed his opening drive all of 50 yards past Knox.

The real test, however, remained the notoriously slick greens, which have been firming-up into areas of serious menace since the rain earlier in the week.

And Knox clearly handled them better. Had it been matchplay, McIlroy would have been beaten 4 and 3. And while he finished strongly with birdies on the 17th and 18th he would also have lost a medal match to the local man by a score of 71 to 70.

Meanwhile, Darren Clarke birdied the long 15th for a third successive day en route to a creditable 73 and a 54-hole total of five over par.

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