News & Opinion

Augusta National shows its softer side

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Venerable Augusta National was deemed vulnerable on a Masters moving day in which three golfers shot 64, and none is even in the lead.

They are all chasing Italian Francesco Molinari, who fired a second straight bogey-free round (66) to claim a two-stroke lead over Tiger Woods and Tony Finau (scores). Molinari said he looked at the pin placements before his round and knew he'd have a chance to make birdies.

Augusta National, in a word, was "gettable" on Saturday. First, Patrick Cantlay, who began the day at 2 over and had never broken 70 in a competitive round at Augusta, torched the course in 8-under 64 without making birdie on the first three par 5s.

"I forgot to birdie the easy holes," Cantlay said.

Indeed, it was a day during which the wind died down, the greens were soft and receptive and the hole locations were more accessible.

"Out of all the rounds I've played here, this was easiest, scoring-condition-wise," Cantlay said.

The scoring average of 70.77 set a tournament low for the third round, and it also marked the first time that three competitors shot 64 in a round.

A day earlier, Brooks Koepka said par felt like 69, so he couldn't have been pleased with shooting that figure and getting lapped by several players, including Webb Simpson, who played the last 12 holes in 8 under to post the day's second 64.

"Any time you put the PGA Tour on receptive greens and low wind, scores will be good, kind of no matter where we are," Simpson said.

650267cf-0beb-4b92-8571-764190a4211f_400x600.jpg
Amateur Takumi Kanaya of Japan joins the 3rd-round assault on Augusta National, touring the front nine in 4-under 32 en route to a 68.

And here's the thing: there's nothing wrong with that. The powers-that-be at Augusta National went through a phase during which they were obsessed with protecting par. They sucked all the fun out of Moving Day. Instead, if you reeled off pars and grinded out a couple of birdies on the reachable par 5s on the second nine, you could separate yourself from the field. But where's the fun in that? Save the bogey hack-outs for the U.S. Open. The lower the winning score is at Augusta, the better the champion (Nicklaus, Woods, Spieth). When major-championship courses are tricked up to protect par, that's when Angel Cabrera and Shaun Micheel end up hoisting the hardware.

When Woods was stuck in neutral early in his third round, he gave himself a pep talk to be patient. He noticed that amateur Takumi Kanaya toured the front in 32, Cantlay was going low and Finau had tied the first-nine record of 6-under 30.

"Let the round build," Woods said. "We've got a long way to go."

He did just that, shooting a 5-under 67 for his lowest third-round score since 2005. Finau was the third competitor to threaten the course record of 63 on Saturday. He continued to manhandle the par 5s, earning some crystal for an eagle at 8, and is 10 under for the par 5s this week.

"Guys were making moves, making eagles, big roars," Xander Schauffele said.

What's not to like? We've got a stacked leaderboard heading into today’s final round, with all sorts of storybook scenarios. There's a sense that the winner might have to shoot another low score to don the green jacket, unless the weather that forced tee times to be moved up arrives earlier than expected (tee times).

"It's going to be a Masters to remember," Finau said. "I know that for sure."

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak