AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Jordan Spieth couldn’t fight the feeling he should be hitting 3-wood when he lined up his tee shot on the 17th tee box at the Masters. He hit driver anyway.
What ensued over the next half hour promises to turn Sunday into a much different experience than he enjoyed last year at Augusta National.
The defending champion blocked the tee shot on 17 and made bogey Saturday, then followed with another blocked tee ball on 18 that led to a double-bogey.
A lead that had grown as large as four shots dwindled to one. A chance to play defense and stroll through the pines for the final round, the way he did last year en route to his record-tying title, will instead be a battle to stave off 10 players within five shots.
“If I’m at 5 or 6 under, that certainly brings anyone who is over par almost out of the tournament,” Spieth said.
Instead, a round of 1-over 73 left him at 3 under and clinging to a one-shot lead over Masters rookie Smylie Kaufman, whose 69 was the best score on a wind-whipped day at Augusta — and one of only five rounds under par.
Bernhard Langer, the 58-year-old, two-time champion, and Hideki Matsuyama are another shot back.
Sunday’s forecast calls for highs in the upper 60s and, for the first time this week, calm winds. In other words, good-scoring conditions.
“Someone gets on a run and shoots 6, 7 under, I know I have to shoot a significant under-par round in order to win this tournament,” Spieth said, “when I could have played a different style of golf, like I did on Sunday last year.”
Last year, he tied the Masters record by finishing at 18-under par. Nobody drew closer than three shots of Spieth on the last day, and he won by four.
A look at some of the players trying to prevent Spieth from becoming the first back-to-back winner at the Masters since Tiger Woods in 2001 and 2002:
KAUFMAN: He loves bowling and playing the Masters on his Xbox at his parents’ home near Birmingham, Alabama, where he still lives. On Sunday, he tees off in the final group of the real Masters — one shot behind Spieth. He shot 69 on Saturday — the only player to break 70. At 24, he is less than two years older than Spieth. They played a lot of golf against each other as juniors. The series standings: “He’s probably 1,000 to zero,” Kaufman said. If he could get on the board Sunday, he’ll become the first Masters rookie to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
LANGER: Get ready to party like it’s 1993. That’s when Langer won the second of his two green jackets. At 58, he would smash the record for oldest player to win the Masters on this, the 30th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus’ stunning victory here at age 46. And yet, would it be that big a shock? Langer is in terrific shape and was putting lights-out Saturday. He only needed 27 strokes on the greens to shoot his 70, tied with Danny Willett for fewest putts on the day. “I would say I’m surprised, except, doesn’t he win every event on the Champion’s Tour?” Spieth said. Pretty much. He’s won 25 times since joining in 2008.
MATSUYAMA: The 24-year-old is only two shots back and is trying to become the first male Japanese player to win a major. He could have been in better shape heading into the final round. He made a birdie on No. 14 to get to 3 under, but made three-putt bogeys on 16 and 17 to finish two shots behind.
THOSE AT EVEN-PAR: The group of three includes Jason Day, who is still in contention despite a wildly inconsistent tournament that included a round of 31-41–72 on the first day. Then, there’s Dustin Johnson, who does not know how to close out a major. His last time in contention was last year at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, where he three-putted from 12 feet on No. 18 to lose.
DON’T FORGET: Rory McIlroy didn’t make a birdie Saturday and shot 77. “You have to try to forget about it and move on,” he said. Good idea. He’s only five shots off the lead. Lee Westwood, the former No. 1, shot 1 under on Saturday and is in a three-way tie for eighth at 1 over, along with Brandt Snedeker and Soren Kjeldsen.