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Thrilling Rounds by Westwood, Mickelson bring Masters Conversation back to Golf
Lee Westwood fired his third consecutive round in the 60s and Phil Mickelson thrilled the patrons with an eagle-eagle-birdie stretch on the back en route to a scintillating 67 as the pair distanced themselves from the field and threatened to turn the Masters into a match play event on Sunday. Westwood's 68 put him at 12-under for the tournament, one shot ahead of Mickelson (11-under) and four in front of K.J. Choi and Tiger Woods, who stand at 8-under.
Westwood leads the tournament because he also leads the field in greens in regulation. He is 43 of 54 (79.9%), and hit 14 greens today, although he only hit 8 fairways out of 14 (66.7%). Choi is tied for second in greens in regulation (42 of 54, 77.8%) and Mickelson is tied for fourth (41 of 54, 76%).
Ranked No. 4 in the world, but still without a major, Westwood is one round away from erasing the memory of his U.S. Open loss at Torrey Pines in 2008. But he'll most likely need a fourth consecutive round in the 60s, as warm, clear weather and an anticipated lenient Sunday set-up means that even players within six shots of the lead still have a chance to fire a closing 67 and win. 50-year-old Fred Couples rebounded from Friday's 75 to fire a 68 and finish the day 7-under. Ricky Barnes, Hunter Mahan, and Ian Poulter are at 6-under, while Anthony Kim and 2009 PGA Champion Y.E. Yang are at 5-under, though they may have shot themselves out of contention with 72 and 73, respectively.
"I felt very calm out there today. Comfortable in what I was doing, every aspect of my game felt good," explained Westwood. "If I missed the green then my short game was reliable and I holed some nice putts which you need to do around here and I felt my way around well….I think I'm ready."
Therein lies the problem for Westwood. At a life-changing moment like this, you don't want to think you are ready. You need to know you are ready. One false move at Augusta, one sloppy shot at Amen Corner or down the stretch means a double-bogey. One mistake: that's the difference between a major champion and a major contender. That's the edge that Mickelson will have tomorrow. Even though he is one shot behind, he has two green jackets and three majors total. He doesn't think he can close, he knows he can.
After hovering around 1-under for most of the day, Mickelson made an epic charge into the Masters' record books. He is following the age-old adage at Augusta National: to win the Masters, you must scorch the par-5s. Mickelson played the par-5 13th, par-4 14th, and par-5 15th eagle-eagle-birdie to make up five shots in three holes. Mickelson has played the 13th hole eagle-birdie-eagle this week, and has eight eagles on the hole in his career, one short of the record of nine eagles for the hole, held by Ray Floyd. Mickelson has a total of 13 eagles at Augusta in his career.
But Mickelson had one more up his sleeve. After reaching the 510-yard 13th in two with a driver and a 7-iron and holing the 8-foot putt, he hit a wedge into the 14th green and watch as his ball landed, rolled sharply to the right and made a beeline for the hole, disappearing into the cup and triggering thunderous applause.
"At 14, it's the easiest pin on the hole. You expect to make birdie there, and I hit a good shot and thought that the ball would be close but you obviously don't expect for it to go in and that was pretty cool that it did," said the typically chatty Mickelson. "And then I made a birdie on 15 after driving behind the trees, I had to lay up and wedged pretty close, almost made a third one."
Interestingly, none of the players atop the leaderboard are at the top of the field in putting or driving accuracy. In fact, their stats are surprisingly low for leaders in a major. Choi, Mickelson and Westwood are all tied for 18th in putting while Tiger Woods is tied for 26th. Choi is T-27 in driving accuracy, hitting 30 out of 42 (71.4%) fairways. Woods and Westwood are T-34 with 29 out of 42 (66.7%), while Mickelson is 42nd with 27 of 42 (64.3%). However, Mickelson's driving accuracy has improved each day while Westwood's has tailed off. Mickelson hit only six fairways on Thursday, but hit 10 Friday and 11 today. Westwood hit 10 fairways on Thursday, but only 8 today. Woods is tied for 8th in greens in regulation with 39 of 54 (72.2%).
"I was fighting my swing all day," said a surly, terse Woods after the round. "I warmed up terrible today. I didn't have control of the ball when I was warming up. I was fighting it then . . . and all day was a two-way miss and three-putting every other hole."
Boy, that must be tough when you can do things like hit a 230-yard 5-iron over the back of the 15th green . . . especially when most of us struggle to get 180 out of it. Woods shot a 2-under 70.
Three of the top four players in the world are in the mix for a riveting Sunday finish. If Saturday's sparkling play is any indication, Sunday's drama will have many more twists and turns.
"There were roars going up all over the place," Mickelson affirmed. "You couldn't figure out who was doing what, because there were roars happening simultaneously throughout the course. I thought that it was really a fun day to see the leaderboard change. We saw plenty of birdies and bogeys, and I think that leads to excitement."
Expect on Sunday at the Masters.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.