AUGUSTA, Georgia—The harsh cold and relentless wind. The lead late Saturday afternoon at the Masters. All the elements were there for Scottie Scheffler to start feeling the pressure of trying to win his first major at Augusta National.
Scheffler never looked worried until the final hole, and then only briefly.
His lead at four shots, his confidence level high, Scheffler’s wild drive to the left of the 18th fairway into the trees didn’t bother him nearly as much as the sight of the spotter poking around in the leaves in a desperate search for the golf ball.
“We saw the guy with the flag that always finds the balls kind of panicking,” Scheffler said. “I was like, ‘Oh, crap. Wonder 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 on the green.”
Like everything else this week, Scheffler figured it out.
He took a one-shot penalty, dropped it onto pine straw and then ripped a 3-iron from 240 yards that hit the green and rolled just over the back, leaving him two putts for a bogey that felt much better.
Scheffler had a one-under 71—one of only nine scores under par in the third round—that gave him a three-shot lead over Cameron Smith going into Sunday.
Scheffler spent all day fending off the cold wind by slipping on a vest over his layers of clothing after every shot on every hole. Maybe his next wardrobe change will be a green jacket.
Smith had the low round at 68, the only player to break 70, and gave himself another shot at winning the Masters in his first start since his victory in The Players Championship. He was a runner-up to Dustin Johnson at Augusta two years ago.
“ Should be a great fight tomorrow,” Scheffler said. “Obviously Cam is a tremendous player, and he’s got a fantastic short game, and he’s coming off a huge win at The Players. Both of us are in good form, so I’m definitely looking forward to the challenge of playing with him tomorrow.”
Sungjae Im (71), also a Masters runner-up in 2020, was the only other player within five shots.
Tiger Woods wanted to find a way to get into red numbers and wound up with his worst score ever at the Masters, a 78 that will be remembered for his first four-putt at Augusta National. He also had four three-putts and was 16 shots behind.
“You’d think I’d have figured it out somewhere along the line, but it just didn’t happen,” he said.
On such a cold day—the wind chill was in the upper 40s most of the day—perhaps this was a warmup for what Scheffler can expect on Sunday at Augusta National, typically the greatest theater of the majors, especially for those seeking their first major.
The last player who failed to hold a lead of three shots or more going into the final round was 21-year-old Rory McIlroy in 2011.
Scheffler looked as though he might turn this into a runaway when he made his fourth birdie of the round on the par-5 eighth and expanded his lead to six shots.
But then a shot from the front bunker on the par-3 12th went over the green. He bounced back with a birdie only to come up well short of the monstrous mound guarding the back right pin on the 14th for bogey, and three-putting the par-5 15th for another bogey.
Even after his best shot of the round, a wedge from 160 yards that rode the right-to-left wind and settled 4 feet away for birdie on the 17th, he ran into trouble off the tee and managed to limit the damage.
“You hate bogeying the last hole, but the way I bogeyed it, it for sure felt like a par,” he said.
Scheffler was at nine-under 207.
Sunday will be the first time since a final pairing at a major featured players from the top 10 in the world since the 2015 Professional Golfers Association Championship with Jason Day and Jordan Spieth.
Scheffler and Smith might be the two hottest players in golf, too.
Scheffler has won three of his last five tournaments, all against some of the strongest fields of the year, a run that has elevated the 25-year-old from Dallas to No. 1 in the world.
Smith began the year by taking down the former No. 1 player, Jon Rahm, with a record score to par at Kapalua. His latest feat was to win the next best thing to a major, The Players Championship, last month.
“It just means I can get it done, I guess, when I’m up against the best guys in the world. It’s a good feeling to have. It’s earned. It’s not given to you,” Smith said. “So I’m going to have to go out there tomorrow and play really good golf again, probably similar to today. Hopefully, everything just falls into place.”
Woods finished as Scheffler was still comfortably ahead, and the five-time Masters champion feels as though he has seen this before. Players hit peak form all the time, and it’s especially sweet when that run is in the spring with the Masters on the calendar.
Woods won back-to-back ahead of his Masters victory in 2001. Jordan Spieth won and had a pair of runner-up finishes when he won his green jacket in 2015. Fred Couples won twice and was runner-up twice ahead of his 1992 victory at Augusta.
“We all wish we had that two, three-month window when we get hot, and hopefully majors fall somewhere along in that window. We take care of it in those windows,” Woods said. “Scottie seems to be in that window right now.”
Charl Schwartzel, who won the Masters in 2011, was trying to keep stride with Smith until he three-putted from about 8 feet for bogey on the 16th and dropped another shot on the 17th, slipping to a 73. He was at two-under 214 along with Shane Lowry (73). Justin Thomas (72) and Corey Conners (73) were the only other players under par.
Image credits: AP