AUGUSTA, Ga. — On a golf course playing as firm and fast as an airport runway, Bubba Watson threatened to run away with the Masters.
He kicked in a 3-foot eagle putt Saturday on the par-5 second hole to move to 8-under-par, four clear of the field. One hole later, his lead was five.
But one of the things that makes the Masters the Masters is the drama. Few leaders are able to run away and hide.
Sure enough, as the third round wore on, Watson’s pursuers reeled him in like a blue marlin.
The result was a coiled-up, history-making leaderboard that holds the promise of another indelibly memorable final round Sunday.
Watson, who won the 2011 Zurich Classic of New Orleans as a prelude to his career-defining Masters victory a year later, gave back three strokes to par after that eagle on 2. He shot 74 on Saturday to park at 5-under 211 after three rounds.
Pulling up alongside him on the leaderboard is 20-year-old Jordan Spieth. A Masters rookie, the 2013 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year looked Jedi master-wise in the ways of Augusta National Golf Club, fashioning a four-birdie, two-bogey 70 that also has him at 5-under.
“Just patience,” Spieth said when asked what helped him to the lead. “You could tell early on the greens were so fast, just ridiculous. You had to put the ball in the right spots and think your way through from the tee box on. It was about being patient and knowing the bogeys would come.”
One of a Masters record 24 rookies in this year’s field, Spieth is the youngest 54-hole leader in tournament history. He eclipsed Tiger Woods, who was 21 when he led and won in 1997.
Spieth is also the second-youngest 54-hole leader ever in a major championship, surpassed only by 19-year-old Seve Ballesteros in the 1976 British Open.
Ballesteros went on to win two green jackets but failed to hold that British Open lead against Johnny Miller. Sunday, Spieth will try to become the youngest Masters champion ever.
“This is kind of heaven on earth for me,” Spieth said. “This is the place I’ve always dreamt about. So far, so good.”
Watson was in high spirits as well despite a shaky finish in which he seemed to find trouble getting his speed right on the last few greens.
“You’re going to struggle probably one day — or I am,” he said. “So if this is my worst day, I’m still tied for the lead, I have a great shot for (Sunday).”
Only 13 players are under par heading into the final round, with seemingly all of them still having a chance to win.
Matt Kuchar birdied 13, 14 and 15 to surge to 5-under, then gave one back with a bogey on 18 but is still just one off the lead at 4-under. He’s tied with another Masters rookie, Jonas Blixt, who also was tied for the lead before a bogey at 17.
Kuchar blew a chance to win in Houston last week when he hit in the water on the final hole of regulation, leading to a sudden-death playoff loss to Matt Jones. But he shook off that disappointment and now is in contention for his first career major title.
“This is a position all of us hope to be in when we show up on Monday,” Kuchar said. “It’s one of those special places, and it’s awfully exciting to be in this situation.”
Miguel Angel Jimenez, 30 years Spieth’s senior, barely made the 36-hole cut at 3-over. But the cigar-puffing Spaniard surged into contention Saturday with a 6-under 66, the best round of the tournament, after a 76 on Friday.
“Minus six, you cannot complain,” he said. “If you are 50, it doesn’t mean you cannot play well. I’m still moving. I’m still flexible. I still hit the ball longer than ever. I’m still competitive, you know?”
Jimenez is tied at 3-under with Rickie Fowler, another one-time phenom who at 24 seems aged by comparison to Spieth. Fowler shot a third-round 67, crediting work he has been doing with well-known teaching pro Butch Harmon.
“When I started working with Butch in December, our main goal was to be here right now, ready to contend and have a chance to win the Masters,” Fowler said. “I think (Sunday) is going to be something new. I haven’t been, I’d say, this close in a major.”
Former world No. 1 Lee Westwood and 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk are in a group at 2-under. Reigning U.S. Open champion Justin Rose and 54-year-old Fred Couples are another stroke back in a group at 1-under.
Couples, the 1992 Masters winner, still has an outside shot to become the oldest major champion ever.
“I’m playing pretty good golf, and I have a shot (Sunday) of shooting some silly round to maybe win, but it’s going to take a 65 or 66,” he said. “But you never know.”