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Thunder and Lightning, Scheffler and Morikawa to Play in Masters Final Group Sunday


It was 1977, and before their famous “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry for the Open Championship, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus had another duel for the ages at the Masters. Watson had been in contention the entire way, tied for the lead after both the second and third rounds, and was in the final pairing on Sunday. Jack opened poorly, snarling acidly that, “My putter and I weren’t speaking to each other that day.” Yet even with an indifferent and feckless putter Jack entered the final round just three shots back of Watson and third-round co-leader Rod Funseth.

Well both Jasck and Watson went on a tear, a precursor to their runaway, indeed legendary, Battle of Turnberry. With Jack breathing down his neck the entire final round, Watson authored a sparkling 67 and won the Green Jacket by two shots over the Golden Bear. They left Hale Irwin alone in third and behind by four strokes.

Now 47 years later another duel in the sun with similar protagonists may be in the offing. After three rounds ur generation’s young lion, Scottie Scheffler – world number one and 2021 Masters champion, and pre-tournament favorite – has surged into the lead at 7-under over a blustery Augusta National that blew away a murderer’s row of former major champions into missing the cut, including 2020 Masters champion Dustin Johnson, two-time major winner Justin Thomas, three-time major winner and 2015 champion Jordan Speith, 2013 US. Open and Olympic gold medalist Juston Rose, and current U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark.

Augusta national played to an almost unheard of 75.2 stroke average on Friday. That’s a statistical outlier.

Scheffler’s eagle on 13 was the shot of the day and typical of the Zues-like thunderbolts he’s hurled with both hands over a sparkling three-tournament winning streak, including the PLAYERS in March. After losing three strokes combined at 10 and 11 to fall out of the lead, he belted a 317-yard drive to the right-center of the fairway. His iron shot from 215 scooted towards the back of the green, settling 31 feet away.

When that putt snaked in after breaking two ways, the trees echoed for minutes with the cheering. Shades of all the great champions of the past, he had vaulted into the lead with a back-nine eagle.

That’s how the greats play Augusta National:  a back-nine charge.

“I missed some opportunities around 8 and 9. Then hit what was a decent shot into 10, and it lands — obviously I wasn’t trying to land it back there by the pin, but I get a bad gust and it lands eight feet from the pin, and it ends up in the bushes back there and I make double. Make another bogey at 11 and all of a sudden I’m probably going from in the lead to a few out of the lead and then, you know, things happen pretty fast out there,” Scheffler admitted candidly. “And then that putt on 13 was nice because it was trickling up towards the cup. I didn’t know whether or not it was going to get there, and it kind of just nudged right over the edge and went in. So it was exciting, and it was nice to be able to steal a couple shots there on 13 and get back in the tournament.”

After opening with a 66, Scheffler’s subsequent rounds of 72 and 71 have him at 7-underc par, one stroke ahead of two-time major winner Collin Morikawa and two strokes ahead of rising young star Max Homa. Swedish wunderkind Ludvig Aberg, playing in his first major championship, is fourth, three shots back at 4-under.

Still, if there is one foil to Scheffler’s thunder it’s Morikawa’s lightning:  a proper Tom Watson-ish figure standing in the way of Scheffler’s Nicklausian strength. Morikawa’s 69 was the second-best round of the day yesterday at Augusta National. He opened the round with three consecutive birdies to surge into a tie for the early third-round lead, then traded a bogey at the par-3 sixth for a birdie at the short but tricky par-5 eighth. He carded nine consecutive parson the inward nine, including a sloppy three-putt bogey at the 13th.

Morikawa is especially dangerous this time around as he has nothing ti fear. He came into this tournament slumping and searching. He’s a popular favorite – the skinny young kid with the happy-go-lucky attitude and the sensible, if laconic answers to questions. He’s changed putters back-and forth, but he’s comfortable with that. He’s asking tough questions and second-guessing answers, btu that’s how he excels. And his confidence has never wavered nor has his singular focus.

“At the end of the day, when you tee it up on Thursday, especially knowing the conditions we were going to have, you throw everything out the window and you’ve just got to hit shots. If you’re able to repeat something and you at least know where it’s coming out of, at least you know where the start line is and relatively where it’s going to curve, you can play shots,” he stated thoughtfully. “You know, for the past month or so, I’ve just been kind of been hitting and hitting aimlessly, and that’s kind of hard, but we found something. Maybe the confidence wasn’t at the top, top tier that I’ve had in the past. But in no way did I believe or tell myself that I couldn’t win because I fully believe that I could do it,” he concluded.

With an phlegmatic attitude like that in the crucible of a major, if Morikawa plays his best, he may very well make one less mistake than Scheffler, and that could be the difference in the sizing of the Green Jacket come Sunday night. Morikawa also has another crucial leg up – he’s playing in the final pairing with Scheffler.

If you’re not in the final pairing, you at least should be no further than four shots off the lead – so says statistical analysis, and that bodes well for one final wild card still in the mix – Bryson DeChambeau, our Mad Scientist Du Jour.

After opening with a brilliant 65 and the first-round lead, Bryson posted flaccid, mistake-filled 73 and 75. His nadir came at 15 ad 16 where he played those two easy holes a combined 3-over par, (a double at the short par-5 15th and a bogey at the short part-3 16th).

Those two holes are supposed to be a milk run, a chance to gain strokes on the field, not lose them.

“Yeah, I’m going to look back on this one and try to figure out how to putt well, putt better on these greens and control the speed a little bit more…. We’re not able to use greens books out here, I’ve had to learn and adjust to that. This is just another step. I’ve got to figure out, when the greens get this firm, this crisp, how to control the speed just a little bit better,” he groused sourly in an unusually -for him – laconic and terse interview.

So it’s the Nicklausian strength and thunder of Scheffler versus the Watson-like lightning strikes of Morikawa. And it’s the incomparable grandeur of Augusta National. But with the right kind of eyes, it’s Nicklaus Watson, Palmer-Nicklaus, Hogan-Snead, Tiger-Phil or any of the historic matchups in the Masters’ illustrious history. And the roars this year will likewise echo through the centuries to come.

MORIKAWA TRAils cheffler by one going into the final round of the 2024 masters tournament at augusta national