AUGUSTA, Ga. — Entering this week’s Masters, it seemed as though only two top Tour pros had their best stuff.
Jon Rahm hadn’t contended since January. Neither had Patrick Cantlay. Justin Thomas was battling his putter. Viktor Hovland was battling his chipping. Jordan Spieth had regressed. Rory McIlroy was inconsistent. Collin Morikawa was, too. Hideki Matsuyama was injured. Down the line — from Brooks Koepka to Dustin Johnson to Xander Schauffele and so on — none of the usual suspects were firing on all cylinders.
Except for two players. Scottie Scheffler had won three of his last five starts and had just ascended to World No. 1. Cameron Smith was hot off a victory at the Players and had won in Hawaii, too. They were clearly the hottest two in men’s professional golf. They entered as two of the favorites.
And now, headed to the final round of the Masters, they’re Nos. 1 and 2 on the leaderboard.
At several points on Saturday, the Masters felt like a runaway. Scheffler’s lead was five entering the day. It stretched as large as seven. But he finished the day just three shots ahead of Smith heading to the most pressure-packed day on golf’s calendar.
Scheffler finished the day at nine under par. Smith is closest behind him at six under. Then comes Sungjae Im at four under. Nobody else is within six shots of the lead.
The 54-hole leaderboard doesn’t look like you’d expect. If you had Spieth, Koepka and Schauffele headed home while Charl Schwartzel and Danny Willett tee off Sunday among the 54-hole leaders, well, enjoy the private island you buy with your winnings. In the meantime let’s enjoy the Masters Sunday we have in front of us, which is setting up much better than you might think.
Let’s get to know our contenders, beginning with the chase pack. The list of pros at one over par — Collin Morikawa, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Tommy Fleetwood, Jason Kokrak — is a group with enough firepower to command your attention. Sure, they’re starting Sunday 10 shots back. But there are also only seven players separating them from Scheffler. Someone’s going to make a run. Who is it?
Head up the leaderboard and you’ll see a neat variety of golfers of different shapes and sizes. There are your favorite ballstrikers’ favorite ballstrikers, Corey Conners (-1), Justin Thomas (-1) and Sungjae Im (-4). There’s a certifiable mudder in Shane Lowry (-2). There are two forgotten former champs, Willett (E) and Schwartzel (-2), each showing strong in their returns to the spotlight.
At the top are two superstars in the making. Smith is a 28-year-old blond-mulleted Aussie with a golden putter and a fishing obsession. Scheffler is a 25-year-old Texan by way of New Jersey whose hobbies include obliterating PGA Tour fields and playing board games with his wife and friends. Neither has a major championship. In fact, on Jan. 1 they had one combined PGA Tour victory and were ranked 21st and 12th in the world, respectively. Now they have six wins, they’ve leapt to No. 6 and No. 1 and it looks more than likely they’ll have a major by day’s end tomorrow, too.
The final pairing feels obvious in hindsight. But things never work out this neatly, not even at the biggest events of the year. In fact, that final pairing is as juicy as we’ve seen in a while: The last time two top-10 pros were in the final group of a major was in 2015, when Jason Day and Jordan Spieth battled it out at the PGA Championship. Scheffler vs. Smith is the heavyweight bout we were hoping for.
It wasn’t always so obvious. Saturday came cold and hard at Augusta National, with wind in the 20s and temperatures in the 40s. It thinned the herd. Kevin Kisner showed up in a beanie, Morikawa in a neckwarmer and McIlroy flaunting two handwarmers in each pocket. (“Four handwarmers,” he admitted, showing them off. “I’m getting soft.”)
Some storylines came to unfortunate ends. Tiger Woods, who’d made an inspiring charge through the cut line, played his way out of contention with nightmarish putting en route to a 78. Rahm played his way out of the mix, too, shooting 77. Cantlay could only manage 79. The National proved a serious challenge.
“I had handwarmers all day, but I don’t think they helped, to be honest,” Smith said. “It was brutal.”
For much of Saturday’s third round, Scheffler looked in complete control. He made a delightful up-and-down from a tricky spot over the green at No. 1. A terrific approach at the par-5 second set up a birdie. A nifty skipping pitch shot at No. 3 set up another. He dropped a shot at No. 4 but got it back with a birdie putt at No. 6 and a clever wedge approach into No. 8. He was shaping shots, getting creative, varying trajectory and curvature. Those viewers just getting introduced to Scheffler’s characteristic off-balance finish might have wondered how his game could be so relentlessly consistent. He kept showing them.
“I had a lot of fun out there,” he said. “I talked about at the beginning of the week that being in contention is what’s fun, so being in the lead is fun. When I’m in the lead, I’m trying to stay in the lead and not really overthink things; just go out there and play golf.”
He was playing golf more effectively than anyone in the field. But as the shadows grew longer and the greens grew crispier, things got a little bit more interesting. Scheffler made just one par in his final seven holes, a stretch that included a saucy wedge shot at 13, a three-putt at 15, a no-no-no-YES approach at 17 and a nifty bogey save at 18 after his tee shot found the middle of a bush.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge of tomorrow and, you know, just keep doing my thing,” Scheffler said.
Ahead of him, Smith was playing the round of the day. He was tracking Scheffler’s progress, too.
“Every hole, every chance there was,” he said, asked if he’d been leaderboard-watching. “I believe in just looking at what you need to do. So, yeah, the goal today was to keep making birdies. Scottie was making birdies, so just trying to keep up.”
He picked up three shots in the process. Even though a short missed par putt at No. 16 left a sour taste in his mouth, Smith’s four-under 68 was Saturday’s best round by two. He cemented his position as Scheffler’s chief challenger. And he’ll be able to play with the freedom of a chaser while drawing on the experience of being in contention at Augusta before — Smith finished T5 in 2018, T2 in 2020 and T10 last year.
Several compelling questions remain. How will Scheffler handle the eve of the biggest day of his career? Will his three-shot lead look small or large? Whose early move will send roars ’round Augusta?
Sunday promises the best weather of the week. It’s possible that birdies will follow, at least for the early groups. But as the sun and wind do their thing, we may yet see a crispy Augusta making targets smaller and turning two-putts into unpredictable adventures.
In other words, there’s plenty to look forward to. The last time we heard proper Masters roars was the last time there was a full crowd in attendance, in April 2019. They’ll ping around Augusta National on Sunday once again. At the end of the day, a worthy champion will be crowned. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy while we figure out who that is.