One of the most highly anticipated Masters Tournaments has lived up to its hype for 54 holes, so imagine what the world’s greatest golfers have in store for today’s final 18 holes at Augusta National Golf Club.
On a Saturday that had so many highs it felt like a final round, Sweden’s Peter Hanson had a birdie-birdie finish to stay ahead of Phil Mickelson, whose second-nine heroics shook Augusta National.
Hanson, playing in just his second Masters, shot 7-under 65, the low round of the tournament by one shot – over Mickelson, whose 66 included a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole.
After a bogey on No. 1, Hanson struck for eight birdies thanks to a red-hot putter.
“It was just one of those rounds that turned into a great round,” said Hanson, who leads the field with 18 birdies in 54 holes.
Mickelson was playing in the group behind Hanson.
“It’s very difficult to try to follow those kind of birdies when you’re watching it right in front of you,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson actually bested Hanson on the back nine, shooting 6-under 30 to Hanson’s 31.
“It was awesome, it was so much fun,” Mickelson said. “When that putt (on No. 18) went in, it was such a good feeling.”
Putting is the reason Hanson and Mickelson are in the final group. Hanson led the field in putting Saturday with 23 putts, while Mickelson and two others were second with 26. For the 54 holes, Mickelson leads the field with 77 putts. Hanson is second with 79.
The birdie by Mickelson on 18 earned him a spot in today’s final pairing as he seeks his fourth green jacket, which would match Tiger Woods’ collection and put him two behind leader Jack Nicklaus. Mickelson and Hanson go off at 2:40 p.m.
The man known as Lefty is right where he wants to be. He has won all four of his major championships (three Masters and a PGA Championship) from the final pairing. Nineteen of the past 21 Masters winners have come out of the final group.
“There’s nothing more exciting than being in the final group on Sunday at the Masters because you have a chance, and that’s what we all want is that opportunity,” Mickelson said. “I love it here, and I love nothing more than being in the last group on Sunday at the Masters. It’s the greatest thing in professional golf.”
What a difference from last year at this time, when Rory McIlroy had a four-shot lead. It still turned into a classic after McIlroy self-destructed, and the 2012 version has the earmarks of a repeat. There are 17 players within seven shots of Hanson’s lead.
South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen (69 on Saturday), who has been the most consistent player this week, is two shots off the lead. Oosthuizen was in second place after the first round and third after 36 and now 54 holes.
Bubba Watson (70) is three off the lead, and Matt Kuchar (70) is four back. Four golfers – Hunter Mahan (68), Padraig Harrington (68), Henrik Stenson (70) and Lee Westwood (72) – are five back.
Hanson and Mickelson are hardly strangers to each other. They squared off in singles in the last Ryder Cup matches (Mickelson won 3 and 2) and played the first two rounds together this week. They tied, with Hanson shooting 68-74 and Mickelson reversing that with 74-68.
Hanson said he was inspired by Mickelson’s play and the gallery’s affection for him in the first two rounds.
“I was trying to use that as a bit of motivation for me, as well,” Hanson said. “I mean, the crowds are so much behind Phil and they love him, and I understand why; the way he plays. I’m just going to try to enjoy it. It’s great playing in front of these fans and it’s just an amazing feeling.”
Mickelson responded jokingly, “I’m sorry I was helping him out; it didn’t look like he needed it.”
Hanson knows whose side the gallery will be on today.
“He would be the big-time favorite to win, so I kind of see myself still as a little bit of an underdog,” Hanson said. “So just see what happens.”
This is the first time Hanson, a four-time winner on the European Tour, has held the lead in a major championship.
“It’s a nice situation to me … never led in anything like this,” he said. “I probably won’t be watching much Golf Channel to try to stay away from all that.”
Mickelson, who had said Friday that the third round would be a “critical day” for him to make a move and not have to make up “much ground” on the leaders, got his wish.
Mickelson, who was 4-over par through 14 holes on Thursday, is 12-under on his last 40.
“That was a long time ago,” Mickelson said of his first round, which included a triple bogey on the 10th.
After nine consecutive pars to open his round Saturday, Mickelson caught fire on the second nine. A birdie on No. 10 ended his par streak, and he was on his way. After a par on No. 12, he eagled No. 13 with a 25-footer as the gallery exploded.
“It was one of those special Masters moments that I’ve been watching so many times TV-wise,” said Hanson, who heard the roar.
Mickelson also birdied the par-5 15th with his “super lob” third shot and closed with another birdie on No. 18.
“I think that’s the greatest example of Augusta in purest form right there,” Mahan said. ”He birdies 10, and then makes the next birdie on 12 and then eagles 13. That’s the back nine at Augusta in a nutshell right there. You can be kind of hanging in there, kind of just 2-under; he’s probably at 13th place or whatever, and then all of a sudden has a good stretch there and he’s in first.
“That’s very Phil, and that’s very Augusta,” Mahan said. “You’re just never really out of this tournament until it’s over. So it’s exciting.”
Lost in the excitement ahead of them were the two 36-hole leaders, Fred Couples and Jason Dufner, who were playing in the day’s final pairing.
The 52-year-old Couples, the sentimental favorite, reversed course. He was 4-over after five holes with two bogeys and a double bogey. He finished with 75, as did Dufner.
The biggest surprise of the day was the sudden fade by world No. 2 McIlroy. The 22-year-old, who was just one shot off the lead after two rounds, shot 42 on the front nine with two double bogeys and two bogeys en route to 77.
Though 20 players were shooting a subpar round, the best Woods could do was 72. The four-time Masters champion is 11 shots off the lead after his worst 54-hole start here since 2007, when he was also 3-over for 54 holes. Woods opened this week with 73-75-72.