As Jordan Spieth’s Sunday playing partner, Justin Rose was afforded a closer look than anyone at a record-breaking procession towards Masters glory in 2015. Even as a fellow contender, Rose was taken aback. Twelve months have now passed since Spieth’s horrible, unforeseen capitulation when being denied successive triumphs.
The Masters has a wonderful habit of throwing up recurring themes. As Spieth charged through the field on Saturday, making a 68 to propel himself to four under par, Rose was not of a mind to play second fiddle again. This time in the group immediately behind Spieth, the Englishman signed for a 67 – the lowest score of the day – and a minus six total.
If both Spieth and Rose have points to prove, the great news for the rest of us is that a compact Augusta leaderboard lends itself to several more potential outcomes. That duo just happen to lay claim to the most intriguing which, in part, are intrinsically linked.
Rose could make a lovely piece of golf history by becoming the second man after Ben Hogan to win majors at both Merion and Augusta National. “I have played really well all week,” Rose said. “I felt after a couple of rounds my score could have been significantly lower. Things began to click today and I had my run.”
This is precisely the position Spieth has dreamed of for 12 months. His resilience is so strong that he might have regarded it as inevitable, even from the position of 10 shots off the Masters lead at the end of round one.
Spieth now finds himself 18 holes from Augusta redemption. The stumble which cost him back-to-back Masters a year ago both intensified attention on the 23-year-old this time around and intensified his own desire to don the Green Jacket.
“I couldn’t ask for much better than this after my first round [of 75],” Spieth said. “We have fought back brilliantly to have a chance to win this. Tomorrow might free me up a bit, coming from behind. I plan to play aggressively. At this point it’s win or go home. Finishing fifth versus 10th doesn’t mean much to me.”
By nightfall Rose shared the lead with Sergio García. The Spaniard made a 70 in the third round, five shots better than his previous Saturday average here. Rickie Fowler is one adrift; Ryan Moore, Charley Hoffman, Adam Scott and Charl Schwartzel lurk with intent.
“It was a good day,” García said. “I didn’t feel particularly well or comfortable with my setup early on, even on the range, but I found something and I worked with that and tried to make sure I stayed as consistent as possible. I couldn’t be as aggressive as I would have liked if I was firing on all cylinders but I was able to fight hard with what I had and managed to shoot a good two under.”
Nobody should be in any doubt that on the basis of recent history Spieth is the man to beat. It is unfathomable to say otherwise when a player holds a career Masters record of second, first and second.
Perhaps a glimmer of alternative hope can be derived from the fact that, like now, Spieth did not look a golfer with capacity for meltdown in 2016. That, and in the case of Rose there was such quietly effective movement.
Spieth could become Masters champion having made a nine at the 15th hole on Thursday. When the Texan played a wedge shot to kick-in birdie range during round three, the only shock was Spieth used a bridge to negotiate the greenside water as opposed to walking on it. He was back in the zone.
Specifics of Augusta National and painful memories aside, Spieth is seeking to become the youngest three-times major champion since Jack Nicklaus achieved that treble in 1963.
Rose, the Olympic gold medallist, produced a stirring back nine of 31. His celebration of an 18th-hole birdie was telling. The 36-year-old knows he can win here and would have done in 2015 at 14 under par but for Spieth’s extraordinary performance. “I take confidence from two years ago,” Rose added. “And from Rio; the Olympics aren’t a major but I held off great players down the stretch.”
Rory McIlroy’s birdies at the 2nd and 3rd hinted at a Saturday charge. His body language suggested a man with the necessary impetus to claim the one major that has eluded him thus far. Yet McIlroy’s momentum was halted by a bogey at the 5th and double bogey at the 7th. He later missed what looked like key birdie opportunities at the 13th, 14th and 15th.
Having signed for a 71, McIlroy is not out of this tournament at even par but he needs to summon some Sunday magic. The warming up of the Northern Irishman’s putter will inevitably be key to such a scenario. “Wasted opportunity,” was the key phrase from McIlroy’s Saturday analysis.
Lee Westwood, last year’s joint runner-up, shot his finest round of the week, 68, to move to one under par. On the grounds of experience alone, Westwood’s chances have to be taken seriously. “I did what I needed to do today,” said Westwood. “I needed to get into the red. Obviously I would like to be deep in the red but one under is pretty good. I’ve got half a chance.”
Paul Casey is a shot adrift of Westwood after a 69 which was tempered slightly by a dropped shot at the last. Matthew Fitzpatrick shrugged off his 73 for plus six in total having learned that his beloved Sheffield United had been promoted to the Championship. “That makes the day 10 times better,” he said.
The disconsolate Spieth placing a Green Jacket on the shoulders of another Yorkshireman, Danny Willett, will forever be a Masters reference point. The mistake would have been any assumption that Spieth did not immediately have the capacity to paint an alternative, celebratory image. Or, indeed, that Rose is not capable of denying him.