Scottie Scheffler rises above tricky conditions to take control of The Masters

As the wind swirled around Augusta and the low scores dried up in the likes, the World No. 1 emerged to find the birdies required to seize control of The Masters. Scottie Scheffler, with wins in three of his last five starts, will take to the final group on Saturday with a five-shot lead over the field, after what was a fraught and difficult day that tightened the chasing pack heading into the weekend, but left one man stood above the rest.

Not one thought it would be possible to take such a healthy lead into the third round after a day like this. Indeed, a five-shot lead at the halfway stage is the biggest in Masters history. No one saw that coming.

It was thought a round of level par would have kept plenty of those in the field in contention – but that was before Scheffler’s magnificent back nine. Many were unable to keep with the pace, especially those caught by the worst of the conditions, as Scheffler pulled away with a string of birdies on his final holes.

Cameron Smith and Danny Willett were among those to fall away from the top of the leaderboard. Rory McIlroy could not find momentum to get his challenge on track. Charl Schwartzel, Shane Lowry and Hideki Matsuyama rose, and amongst it all Tiger Woods battled on to ensure that he made the cut – which remains as remarkable a story as any that will be produced at this opening major of the year.

There were moments where it looked like Woods, after the exertions of Thursday’s stunning return, would fall away completely. The five-time Masters champion made four bogeys in his opening five holes and twice found himself at +3. The response to that adversity was just as impressive to his previous round of 71, as he made consecutive birdies at the 13th and 14th to pull himself back and continue his remarkable story of him.

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Scheffler, who was playing in the final group and will be doing so again on Saturday, made a patient start after bogeying the 1st but inspired play after the turn moved him to a score of -8 that did not look reachable earlier. He will be joined in the final group by Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion, who despite carrying little form in the tournament soaked up some birdies before they seemed to disappear in the conditions for a while.

The early window for scoring was short lived. Of the early moves, Jon Rahm opened with back-to-back birdies to get to level par. McIlroy took advantage of his first par 5 to join him. Collin Morikawa looked to have been heating up as he hit the turn with consecutive birdies to get into the red for the first time this week. Earlier, Dustin Johnson was purring as his tee shot at the par-3 4th landed within six feet to move within a shot of the lead.

But the conditions were changing and the wind was starting to pick up. As McIlroy took a long stare at the flag at the 3rd after it changed direction, it was clear Augusta was baring her teeth from her. McIlroy faltered and Johnson had a little mid-round crisis around the turn, which is where the wind was swirling and gusting with menace.

Tiger Woods will continue his story into the weekend

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Sungjae Im, the overnight leader at -5, made it there at level par for the day, recovering from an opening bogey, but his back nine would be an eventful ride. Dropped shots at the 10th and 12th were rescued by sensational birdies at the 13th and 16th, but even they were sandwiched between finding the water for a bogey-six at the par-5 15th.

As Im held the lead at -3 it opened up the competition to even those who started the day in the positive figures. He was joined by Schwartzel who got out early to post a three-under-69. “It’s getting harder,” he said of the wind from the safety of the clubhouse. “I think we had some fortune teeing off earlier. It’s going to be a tough afternoon.”

And so it proved. Smith bogeyed the 1st, an improvement on his double bogey there yesterday, but a second bogey at the 4th saw him relinquish the lead. For a player who came into the week in such promising form and who appeared to master the greens in between his first and last holes on Thursday, such a round was unexpected, even if he did get back to -2 with improved play later on. In stepped Willett, the 2016 Masters champion on the hunt for another taste of victory at Augusta, who birdied the 2nd to take the outright lead.

Johnson held it together on the back nine with a string of pars to remain firmly in contention at -2, or so it seemed based on those early scores. Morikawa birdied the 16th to post a handy round of 70, although he would have been wondering what could have been after a bizarre error with his usually trusty irons led to a bogey after finding the water at the 11th. That was also where McIlroy met his undoing, a double-bogey six puncturing his chances from him, before he played out his round under par to finish +2 overall. He has already conceded that his wait for a Masters title will extend to another year.

Shane Lowry’s 68 was one of the rounds of the day

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For a moment, three former Masters winners shared the lead as defending champion Hideki Matsuyama joined Schwartzel and Willett, but it would not last for long. Willett landed in trouble with his approach at 10 before the 11th found another victim, his putt running through the green. Three bogeys in a row were capped at 12 and in such a tight leaderboard he plummeted down. “A tricky day,” he later admitted.

Matsuyama’s control of Augusta from last year appeared to be continuing and the defending champion hitting the front seemed to be an ominous sign for the rest of the field, although Scheffler was unmoved.

The American rounded the front nine with a pair of birdies to hit the front and when the pressure moments came he held his nerve. A testing uphill putt on the lightning 11th green saved par before he drilled his approach to within 12 feet of the hole at the 12th to set up birdie. Another followed at the 13th after finding his ball amongst the photographers on his approach, only to get up and down in two.

He was thriving in his status as the World No. 1, just as Lowry was also beginning to have some fun. After a bogey at the first left him at +2, he quietly got to work down the front nine before a chip-in for birdie at the 10th to move him into the red ensured he could not slip under the radar any longer. He then played the par 5s to perfection. Afterwards, the former Open champion said it was one of the rounds of his life.

But the afternoon was Scheffler’s. He also picked up shots at the par-5s, before a brilliant birdie at 16 made a mockery of the earlier difficulties experienced throughout the course. The green jacket is now his to lose.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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