Fifty-four holes does not a make a legendary Masters but the first three days of the annual Bobby Jones Classic at Augusta National have more than matched the pre-tournament hype. Sure, the Tiger Woods comeback dream foundered on the back of a few tee shots that required a Sat Nav to find but all a golf lover can ask on the morning of the final Sunday of a major is a leader board that makes the heart thump like an Ibiza nightclub at 3am.
And so here we are, on the final day of the 2018 Masters contemplating a classic showdown between Ryder Cup adversaries Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy. The American holds a three-shot lead but the Irishman holds the advantage in raw talent and in the experience of knowing what it takes to win a major. In the theatre of uncertainty, all we can be sure about is that today’s final pairing will be brilliant and it will be feisty. Buckle up.
Here are some things to look out for:
Nerves will feature prominently over the opening few holes. McIlroy famously missed a four-putt par putt on the first green on the Sunday of the 2011 Masters, a portent of the horrors that were to follow as he threw away a four-shot lead.
Reed is known as an aggressive matchplay competitor but the final round of a major is less about the fist pumps and more about keeping emotions under control. If McIlroy picks up a couple of early birdies then the American will need to resist his natural instinct to attack. He has a three-shot lead and has no need to chase birdies.
Only the brave or foolish would predict a winner from outside Sunday’s final two groups. The winner will come from either Reed, McIlroy, Fowler or Rahm, but there is still plenty of value and fun to be found elsewhere. Unshackled from the weight of expectation, today might be the day for Tiger Woods to produce the kind of golf his fans and admirers expected him to produce on a layout he knows better than anyone in the field.
He won’t win but don’t be surprised if the former world no1 backdoors his way into a top eight finish. As for the less known figures – look out for Cameron Smith, destined to be the next great Australian golfer, and Louis Oosthuizen, who is tied for 12th place after three rounds but has the kind of form around Augusta National that suggests he could finish much higher than that.
In the blizzard of statistics and historical precedent that descended after the completion of last night’s third round a couple of nuggets stood out, both from Justin Ray, the US-based Golf Channel’s stats guru. Today will be the twelfth time since 2000 that a player without a major victory has held his first 54-hole lead going into the final round of the Masters.
Only two of the previous 11 players who found themselves in that position have gone on to win. Meanwhile, in 1935, Gene Sarazen went into the final round of the Master three shots behind the leader. He went on to win the Green Jacket in a play-off to complete the career Grand Slam. Today, McIlroy attempts to become the sixth member of that elite club.
With the eyes of the watching world focused on Reed and McIlroy, there is a chance for the likes of Rickie Fowler and Jon Rahm to make a run from behind. For Fowler, in particular, today stands as a big moment in the career which is threatening to go down as financially lucrative but ultimately unfulfilled.
For the moment, the marketable American is viewed as being more flash than substance. A stunning come-from-behind victory would silence the naysayers once and for all. All he needs is another 65 to match Saturday’s effort, and for the two men ahead of him on the leaderboard to crumble under the weight of expectation.
In recent years, the Green Blazers of Augusta National have erred on the side of caution when it came to setting up the course in a misguided attempt to defend their precious golf course against record scoring. The effect has been to quieten the atmosphere around one of golf’s great theatres and turn what has traditionally been must-watch TV into an extended Sunday night yawn.
The watching world wants a thrill-a-minute experience not a thrill-every-thirty-minutes experience, which means pins set in positions that offer eagle and birdie chances galore, that will tempt the courageous, punish the meek and ultimately reward a deserving champion. Bring it on.