US Masters Golf: Posse of talent take up pursuit of Green Jacket

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The Independent Online
FOLLOWING two years of experimentation, the 62nd US Masters returned to type entering the final round. While Greg Norman proved a lead at the 54-hole stage of six shots, with Nick Faldo lying second, was insufficient to ensure victory in 1996, Tiger Woods showed conclusively that nine was more than enough last year.

But Fred Couples did not have anything like the same luxury, especially with a bogey at the final hole of his third round just two in front of the field at six under par. Within six strokes of his lead were 18 players, a posse including seven other major champions, including all four from last year.

Couples's closest challengers were Paul Azinger, Phil Mickelson and Mark O'Meara. Jose Maria Olazabal, the '94 champion, was four back, one ahead of Woods, Ernie Els, Colin Montgomerie and Jack Nicklaus, at 58, the oldest player to be in the top 10 with a round to go. At level par were Justin Leonard, the US Amateur champion Matt Kuchar, and three players who all shot third-round 67s, Davis Love, Darren Clarke and Per- Ulrik Johansson.

Augusta National returned to its teasing, tempting best over the weekend. With the pressure slightly off, a run up the leaderboard was possible with a low score. For those at the top, however, any inclination to get too greedy or to press too hard and disaster lurks in the form of the dyed-blue ponds and streams that guard the back nine.

Couples set off on his final round exactly six years to the day since he won his first Green Jacket. Then he was in the best form of his life and was ranked the best player in the world. At 38, his back troubles limit his practice and schedule but he can still prepare for certain targets. "I have been really shooting for this tournament because it is my favourite," Couples said. "I'm thrilled to death," he added. "A little practice and a lot of confidence has gone a long way for three rounds. Whatever happens I'm going to take a few weeks off and I'll probably lose my game again, but I'll worry about that in a month."

The upward progression in his scores - 69, 70, 71 - was due to his putting, always the most shaky element of his game. Tee-to-green there are still few in America who can produce similar ball-striking to Couples. At the par-five 13th, he hit a three-iron from 205 yards to a foot and a half for a tap-in eagle.

But his dropped shot a the last, when he drove into the trees on the right, left him more exposed than he would have liked. "I started the day tied for the lead and now I'm two ahead. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just there's a lot more guys in there."

The three men chasing Couples most closely were all looking for their first Green Jacket. Paul Azinger won the 1993 USPGA Championship, but that was the last tournament he was a contender in. "I couldn't get into contention in my club championship," he said.

In all, Azinger won three times in '93, was on the leaderboard every week and was a significant factor in America's Ryder Cup win at The Belfry. But by the December of that year he was undergoing chemotherapy for a lymphoma in his right shoulder.

Having missed most of the '94 season, Azinger returned to the tour but the competitive edge which was the hallmark of his career was seemingly missing. "It was a problem for a while," he said. "But it hasn't been a problem lately. I think I have gotten past that point in my life. I can say my life has returned to normal. I care about golf as much as I ever did."

For all his 12 wins on the US Tour, the left-handed Mickelson, the great amateur to emerge into the professional ranks, has lagged behind Woods and Leonard in claiming the major championship many thought was his due. Two third places, including at the '96 Masters, were his best results.

While he has shared the tag of "best player not to have won a major" with Montgomerie, O'Meara has never quite been put in that category.

Certainly the 41-year-old, who admits to have gained renewed motivation for the game of golf because of his friendship with Woods, has never worried about topping out his CV with a major.

"Actually, I sleep at home pretty good at night," O'Meara said. "I've got a great wife and kids. If someone wants to classify me as a failure for never winning a major championship, that's their right. I've never won one, but would I trade away that away for all I've done? No."

Woods was left with no option but to go for broke in his final round after his second successive 72 on Saturday. The round included his first official three-putt for 113 holes at the first and a double-bogey at the fourth, but his birdie at the last kept him, just, within striking distance of the lead.

"Today was probably one of the best 72s I've ever shot in my life," Woods said, considering how I was striking the ball. I was proud of the way I hung in there." He was still hopeful of being the one receiving a Green Jacket and not presenting it at the end of the final round.

"On this course, if you get something going, you can keep it going. I should be four under on the par-fives right away. It is a matter of executing the shots and getting some momentum."

Third-round scores from Augusta

(US unless stated)

210

F Couples 69 70 71

212

P Mickelson 74 69 69

P Azinger 71 72 69

M O'Meara 74 70 68

213

D Duval 71 68 74

J Furyk 76 70 67

214

S Hoch 70 71 73

J Haas 72 71 71

J M Olazabal (Sp) 70 73 71

215

T Woods 71 72 72

E Els (SA) 75 70 70

C Montgomerie (GB) 71 75 69

J Nicklaus 73 72 70

216

S McCarron 73 71 72

D Love 74 75 67

P-U Johansson (Swe) 74 75 67

D Clarke (GB) 76 73 67

*M Kuchar 72 76 68

J Leonard 74 73 69

217

M Calcavecchia 74 74 69

J Maggert 72 73 72

I Woosnam (GB) 74 71 72

218

W Wood 74 74 70

B Faxon 73 74 71

J Huston 77 71 70

219

D Frost (SA) 72 73 74

M Bradley 73 74 72

D Toms 75 72 72

D Love 74 75 67

S Cink 74 76 69

J Daly 77 71 71

220

S Jones 75 70 75

C Stadler 79 68 73

A Magee 74 72 74

F Zoeller 71 74 75

221

S Elkington (Aus) 75 75 71

J Parnevik (Swe) 75 73 73

T Kite 73 74 74

222

C Pavin 73 77 72

P Stankowski 70 80 72

L Westwood (GB) 74 76 72

L Janzen 76 74 72

B Langer (Ger) 75 73 74

John Cook 75 73 74

224

P Blackmar 71 78 75

226

*J Kribel 74 76 76

227

G Player (SA) 77 72 78

Missed cut: 151 T Watson 78 73; T Herron 76 75; B Mayfair 76 75; B R Brown 76 75; N Price (Zim) 75 76; T Tolles 75 76; S Lyle (GB) 74 77; R Floyd 74 77; N Faldo (GB) 72 79. 152 Joe Ozaki (Japan) 75 77; B Tway 74 78; L Mize 73 79; O Browne 72 80. 153 C Rocca (It) 81 72; F Nobilo (NZ) 77 76; B Andrade 75 78; B Hughes (Aus) 75 78. 154 J Sluman 78 76; S Appleby (Aus) 77 77; G Norman (Aus) 76 78; S Maruyama (Japan) 74 80. 155 B Crenshaw 83 72; D Ogrin 77 78. 156 T Lehman 80 76; M Brooks 80 76; V Singh (Fiji) 76 80. 157 I Garrido (Sp) 85 72; S Simpson 79 78; G Hjertstedt (Swe) 79 78; *C Watson (GB) 79 78; F Funk 79 78; S Ballesteros (Sp) 78 79. 158 T Clark (SA) 80 78; G Brewer 72 86. 160 T Aaron 81 79; *K Bakst 82 78. 161 B Glasson 82 79. 164 C Coody 79 85. 166 A Palmer 79 87. 167 B Casper 81 86.

Withdrew: D Ford

*denotes amateur

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