Augusta, Georgia – Cold, harsh, harsh wind. Performs late on a Saturday afternoon at The Masters. All the elements were there until Scotty Scheffler started feeling the pressure of trying to win his first major at Augusta National.
Schaeffler never seemed anxious until the last hole, and then only briefly.
His four-shot lead, high level of confidence, and Schaeffler’s unbridled dash to the left of the 18th fairway in the trees did not disturb him so much as the sight of a leaf spotter in a desperate search for a golf ball.
“We saw the guy with the flag who always panicked in between the balls,” Scheffler said. “I was like, ‘Oh, crap. Wondering what’s going on there? Fortunately, they found the ball. And then all I was trying to do was figure out how I was going to get it green.”
Like everything else this week, Schaeffler found out.
He took a one-shot penalty, dropped it on pine straw, then shredded a 3-iron from 240 yards that hit the green and rolled over the back, leaving him two hits for a bogey who felt much better.
Schaeffler’s 1 under 71 – one of only nine below par in the third round – gave him a three-shot lead over Cameron Smith through Sunday.
Schaeffler spent all day fending off the cold wind by slipping a jacket over his seams after every shot in every hole. Perhaps his next wardrobe change will be a green jacket.
Smith had the low turn at 68, the only player to break 70, and gave himself another chance to win the Masters on his first start since winning the Players Championship. He was runner-up to Dustin Johnson at Augusta two years ago.
“It should be a great fight tomorrow,” Scheffler said. “Obviously Cam is a great player, has a great short game, and had a big win at The Players. We’re both in great shape, so I’m definitely looking forward to the challenge of playing with him tomorrow.”
Sungjae Im (71), the 2020 Masters runner-up, was the only other player within five shots.
Tiger Woods wanted to find a way to get into the red numbers and ended up with his worst score ever at the Masters, a 78 that will be remembered in his first four kicks at the Augusta National. He also had four three bullets and had 16 rounds behind.
“You would have thought I would have figured it out somewhere along the line,” he said, “but it just didn’t happen.”
On such a chilly day—the wind chill was in the upper 40s for most of the day—this was perhaps a warm-up to what Scheffler could expect on Sunday at Augusta National, usually the greatest theater for majors, especially for those looking for their first major.
21-year-old Rory McIlroy was the last player to fail to advance by three or more shots in the final round in 2011.
Schaeffler seemed to think he might turn this into a fugitive when he made his fourth fly of the round in Bar-5 eighth and expanded his lead to six shots.
But then a shot from the forward bunker on a level 12 par-3 passed over the green. He bounced back with a little birdie only to get away from the monstrous pile guarding the right rear pin on the 14th for a ghost, and three par-5 15 for another bogey.
Even after his best shot of the round, a 160-yard wedge that rode the wind from right to left and settled 4 feet for a birdie on the 17th, he ran into trouble on the tee and managed to limit damage.
“You hate to cheat on the last hole,” he said, “but the way I cheated, it definitely felt like an equal.”
Schaeffler was nine under 207.
Sunday will be the first time since a final pairing in top 10 world class players since the 2015 PGA Championship with Jason Day and Jordan Spieth.
Scheffler and Smith might be some of the most exciting players in golf, too.
Schaeffler has won three of his last five championships, all against some of the year’s strongest fields, a streak that has catapulted the 25-year-old from Dallas to number one in the world.
Smith started the year by dropping the former number one, John Ram, by setting a record on par with Kapalua. His most recent achievement was winning a next major tournament award, the Players Championship, last month.
“It just means I can get it done, I think, when I’m up against the best players in the world. It feels good to have it. It’s got. So I’m going to have to go out there tomorrow and play good golf again, maybe like today,” Smith said. Hopefully everything falls into place.”
Woods finished with Schaeffler still comfortably ahead, and the five-time Masters champ feels as if he’s seen this before. Players are peaking their level all the time, which is especially great when it’s springtime running with the Masters on the calendar.
Woods won back-to-back before winning the Masters in 2001. Jordan Spieth won and took second place when he won his green jacket in 2015. Fred Koebles won twice and was a two-time runner-up prior to 1992. Victory in Augusta.
“We all wish we had a window of two months and three months when we’d be hot, and hopefully the big business would fall somewhere in that window. We’re taking care of it in those windows,” Woods said.
Charles Schwarzl, the 2011 Masters winner, was trying to maintain his lead with Smith until his three shots from about 8 feet for a bogey on the 16th and another drop shot on the 17th, fell to 73. 214 with Shane Lowry (73).
Justin Thomas (72) and Corey Conners (73) were the only other players on a par.
Written by DOUG FERGUSON AP Golf Writer