AUGUSTA, GA. — Jordan Spieth has lived up to his billing as the next big thing in golf all week long. Now the 20-year-old Texan has the opportunity to become the youngest Masters Tournament champion – and the first player in 35 years to win in his first start at Augusta National Golf Club.
Spieth, ranked 13th, is tied for the lead with No. 12 Bubba Watson, who is 15 years his senior and who won the Masters two years ago. Spieth shot 2-under-par 70 Saturday, and Watson had 74.
“So far, so good,” said Spieth, who called Augusta National “heaven on earth” when he saw it for the first time in October. “This is the position I want to be in.”
He’ll have to beat Watson and a host of challengers.
“Sunday’s a big deal because that’s the day they give out the green jacket,” Watson said.
Watson and Spieth are friends, and both attend the PGA Tour’s weekly Bible study.
“We’re all trying to win the same trophy,” Watson said. “We are all trying to do the same thing. We are all going to be nervous, and we all know what it means to our career, for our status, to move forward in the game. So it’s going to be tough for everybody, not just guys that have never won one.
“I’ve won one, so I’ve got that going for me, but if I play bad tomorrow, I still have a green jacket, so that’s the positive I have to go for.”
With Tiger Woods out with back surgery and Phil Mickelson missing the cut, it was supposed to be a wide-open Masters weekend, and that’s exactly what it has turned into.
Thirteen players, including 54-year-old Fred Couples, are within four shots of the lead. Couples, the winner in 1992, is trying to become the oldest Masters champ.
Spieth and Watson are at 5-under 211, the highest 54-hole leading score since 2006, when 212 led. Watson attributed it in part to greens that “really firmed up, were a lot faster, a lot harder than what we are used to the day before.”
Watson and Spieth will go off in the final pairing at 2:40 p.m. Sunday. Spieth, who trailed Watson by four shots after 36 holes, predicted the pairing.
“We joked about it on the range today when they (Spieth and his caddie) were going to the tee,” Watson said. “They said, ‘We’ll see you in the last group on Sunday.’ And I was like, ‘You’d better play good.’ But obviously, I should have played a little bit better.”
The last time a Masters rookie was in the last group of the final round was 1995, when Brian Henninger shot 76 and tied for 10th place. Watson doesn’t think that will happen with Spieth.
“He’s young, nerves are no big deal to him,” Watson said. “It will be good. He’s a great player, obviously. A guy like that, he obviously has no fear.”
One shot behind Spieth and Watson are savvy veteran Matt Kuchar and Sweden’s Jonas Blixt.
Kuchar, who has finished no worse than eighth here the past two years, had 68. Blixt, another Masters rookie who can become the first European winner here since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999, had 71.
The hottest player is 50-year-old Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, who had the low round of the tournament with 66 and is tied for fifth place, two shots back. Also two back is 25-year-old Rickie Fowler (67). Jimenez, like Couples, could break Jack Nicklaus’ record as the oldest champion at age 46.
Spieth, who became the youngest PGA Tour winner in 82 years when he won last year’s John Deere Classic at age 19, opened with 71-70. He and Blixt (70-71-71) are the only players in the field to break par in each round.
Watson wasn’t as sharp with his ball-striking Saturday and never got comfortable on the slick greens, taking 33 putts, including two three-putt greens.
He hit just 12 greens Saturday.
“A lot of my bogeys were long or short (with his irons),” Watson said. “It wasn’t left to right, so I’m not too worried about what went on.”
Watson didn’t understand why his shots carried farther, but he’s pleased with his position.
“If somebody told me on Monday I’d have 74 and still be tied for the lead, I’d have taken it all day long,” he said.
Watson knew he needed to make a short par putt on No. 18 to get into the final group Sunday.
“That was very important,” he said.
Being in the final pairing hasn’t been the best place to be lately. The last 54-hole leader to put on the green jacket was Phil Mickelson in 2010.
Charl Schwartzel in 2011, Watson in 2012 and Adam Scott last year had to chase down the leaders to win.
Kuchar fits the profile of a Masters winner. He’s in his mid-30s (35) with six PGA Tour wins, has played here seven previous times and challenged the past two years. He was the only player Saturday to hit every fairway off the tee.
“I’m very excited to have another crack at it,” Kuchar said. “It’s a position all of us want to be in when we show up Monday or Tuesday.”
The man nicknamed “Kooch” is also riding a hot streak. He has finished in the top 10 six times in his nine starts this season, including a playoff loss last week in Houston and a tie for fourth the week before in San Antonio.
“I’ve been playing some good golf, and I’ve been around the lead with a chance to win,” Kuchar said. “I’ll take a lot from the last two weeks.”
Blixt, 29, has been putting the Augusta National greens like a veteran, not a Masters rookie. He ranks fifth in putts, with 83 through 54 holes and putting rounds of 27, 29 and 27. He and Jimenez are the only players without a three-putt green.
“I’ve been putting really well around there,” Blixt said. “I thought I had a couple of putts today that really were really close. And I feel like almost everything in my bag is kind of working pretty well.
“If I can put the golf ball on the fairway tomorrow, I think I’ll be dangerous. And if tomorrow isn’t my day, then it’s not. And I’ve had a good experience, and I’ll definitely try to come back.”