AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) - A heavyweight group of golfing royalty lurked on the fringes of contention after 54 holes at the U.S. Masters, all aware that nothing less than final-round perfection on Sunday would give them a chance of donning the Green Jacket.
Henrik Stenson, a distant seven strokes behind leader Patrick Reed (14-under), probably best summed up the hopes of the chasing pack at Augusta National.
“I think I’m a bit too far back,” the 2016 British Open champion told reporters after battling his long game for a hard-fought two-under 70.
One stroke further back, Bubba Watson and Marc Leishman were marginally more upbeat.
“We’re playing a great golf tournament,” said two-times Masters champion Watson, whose game clicked into gear late in the first round on Thursday.
Leishman started the third round two strokes behind halfway leader Reed, but a birdie-free 73 all but ended his chances.
“I hit it well enough to hit a really good score, but it just wasn’t to be,” the Australian lamented. “Putts just weren’t going in.”
The eight strokes Jack Burke (1956) and Gary Player (1978) overcame remain the largest final-round deficits ever wiped out to win the Masters, so at least Watson, Leishman and Tommy Fleetwood can draw some slight inspiration from history.
However, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth will have to do the unprecedented and rally from nine back.
Thomas needs a minor miracle to make it back-to-back major victories after his PGA Championship triumph last August.
“Putter just didn’t feel good in my hands again today,” he said.
Spieth, meanwhile, has never been so far adrift starting the final round in his previous four starts at Augusta.
“I’m not down. I get to go out for one of my only stress-free rounds that I’ve ever played at Augusta National,” said the 2015 champion, who also finished second in 2014 and 2016.
But with 22 of the past 27 winners coming from the final Sunday pairing, the odds are that either American Reed or second-placed Briton Rory McIlroy, three off the lead, will slip on the Green Jacket in Butler Cabin.
Spieth seemed to acknowledge as much.
“Patrick, I think he’s come in here with the mentality that he’s fully capable of winning here, and he’s proving what he is capable of doing here,” the American added. “It’s going to be a pretty cool showdown with Rory tomorrow.”
Reporting by Andrew Both; Editing by John O'Brien