So the dude with the red shirt made it to the weekend after all. That's Bubba Watson of course. The defending champion bounced on to the first tee in that Tigger way of his sporting the classic red shirt and black trousers, copyright Tiger Woods, 1997 Masters. It was a delicious statement of irony and no doubt a deliberate wardrobe choice by the mischievious Watson.
He scraped into the third round on the cut-mark at four over par and set off at pace in the first group of the day at the back of the field accompanied by an Augusta National Golf Club member playing as a marker.
The crowd that followed him was huge. Only at the Masters, where tickets are protected like family heirlooms, can the first player of the day, 10 shots behind the leader, be greeted by a throng that most regular tournaments cannot muster for the final group of the day. On an electric blue-sky morning, the beautiful and the wealthy were out in force for a stroll among the azaleas. Sandals, summer dresses and cocktails for the ladies; chinos, golf shirts, beer and stogies for the men. While they waited for Tiger, they had Bubba for breakfast. And he served up something rather more palatable than the fried chicken and macaroni cheese that he placed before his fellow Green Jackets at Tuesday's champions' dinner.
Watson flexed his pink driver then smashed his opening drive up the hill, sent his approach arcing at the flag and holed his four-foot putt for birdie. At the par-five second, he lunged at his drive so hard, his feet almost left the ground. He battered his ball into the middle of next week. "Oh sheet," yelled a Southern gentleman in awe. Indeed, Bubba had a gameplan. He was playing sheet or bust golf. His approach zeroed in on the centre of the green but his 25 foot eagle putt just curled away from the cup. No matter, tap-in birdie. What a start and what a buzz there was watching Bubba and gossiping about Tiger. The 3rd hole drew more gasps. Bubba thrashed his drive at the 350-yard par four to just 25 yards from the green. He chipped up and holed out for his third birdie in a row. Sensational. He received a standing ovation on to the 4th tee that rivalled any cacophony whipped up by Tiger at the Ryder Cup. This was the sort of stuff that separates the golfing gods (and goofballs) from the mere mortals. But this cavalier attitude was bound to come unstuck on the back nine – and so it proved. He traded three more birdies with a double bogey at the 11th and two further bogeys to sign for a two under par 70 to be two over par for the tournament. Defending his title has been predictably too emotional for Watson, who at least hasn't cried in public since Tuesday. The 34-year-old knows he will be able to return here every year courtesy of the lifetime exemption afforded to Masters champions.
Old Masters champions don't retire, they head to the senior tour. But once a year they get to return to the hallowed grounds of Augusta National to relive their glory years. And some of them can still knock it around this fabled track.
Freddie Couples is 53. He should have hung up the "Gone fishin'" sign long ago but the drug of adulation is a hard one to give up. So, every April at Augusta, Freddie, the 1992 champion, gets to walk the pristine fairways, wave to his adoring fans and feel he is a superstar again. And here he was at five under par and one shot off Jason Day's lead after 36 holes. Surprised? Don't be. He was leading on Friday night last year before finishing 12th.
Ah, Freddie. He is as much a part of Masters tradition as pimento cheese sandwiches and the holy trinity ceremonial starters, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. But Couples still believes he can turn back time. He's kidding himself – and us – of course. He lollops along in what looks like slippers in that loosey-goosey way of his as if he is heading for the beach back home in California. The reality is he wouldn't be walking at all if it weren't for regular pain killing injections in his ailing back that, apparently, are so strong they are like epidurals. But the pain of not being here is worse. This is his 29th Masters since his first in 1983 and Boom Boom Freddie, as he was called in his prime, can still give the ball a mighty belt and his swing is still a thing of beauty. He is art in motion, a natural born talent. He has racked up 17 top 10s alongside that victory and he has missed the weekend cut just twice. He can't win, though, right? "Am I good enough to play four good rounds in a row on a course like this? Couples asked out loud. "It didn't happen last year. I was four over pretty fast on Saturday which was a real bummer." So what would Couples do in the unlikely event that he actually wins his second green jacket 21 years after his first? "I'm going to quit. I swear to God. I'm going to retire. It's probably not ever going to happen."
Still, what makes the Masters unique is that the tournament is just as much about celebrating golf's past champions as it is about anointing new ones.