Commentary

Masters set for fitting finale

Originally Published: April 7, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- At 4:52 p.m. Masters Standard Time on Saturday, the ground shook, the pines covered their ears and scoreboard operators all across Augusta National reached for more red numbers.

Phil Mickelson was tied for the lead!

For about 24 minutes.

And then an ego-free Swede named Peter Hanson, whose own country club in Orlando won't talk about him, moved ahead. He was joined by Louis Oosthuizen, who has a Claret Jug and a last name with seemingly 1,000 incorrect pronunciations.

But wait, then Phil tied them 14 minutes later after a flop shot that nearly tickled the belly of a corporate jet overhead, followed by a birdie putt, followed by more pneumatic riveter decibel levels.

[+] EnlargePeter Hanson
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty ImagesPeter Hanson might not be a household name in the United States, but he has played for the European Ryder Cup team and owns four career victories on the European Tour.

Put Butler Cabin on full Lefty alert for Sunday!

Oops. Never mind. Hanson birdied the 17th to retake the lead and then added another birdie on No. 18 to record the lowest score (65) of the week. Hanson, a mystery to most of the general public, was at 9-under for the tournament.

Then, OMG -- Mickelson birdied the 18th for a 66 and an 8-under total, which means the final round of this Masters could be nuttier than a Planters peanuts factory tour.

"I love it here, and I love nothing more than being in the last group on Sunday," said Mickelson, who is trying to join Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer in the Four Green Jackets Club. "It's the greatest thing in professional golf."

Thank you, Lefty. We needed you, especially after Tiger's swing decided to go on spring break this week -- and forgot to inform Woods.

Woods, the pre-Masters favorite, is so far behind the leaders (12 in back of Hanson, 11 in back of Mickelson) that he could be back home in Florida by the time the final pairing finishes Sunday. He still hasn't broken par here this week and has exactly one birdie and zero eagles in a dozen par-5 tries. Tiger usually lunches on Augusta National's par-5s like they're finger sandwiches.

But the more amazing stat is this: Phil and Tiger have each hit 59.5 percent of their fairways this week and 59.3 percent of their greens. Yet, Tiger needs a AAA flip map to find the leaderboard. That's because Mickelson has 10 fewer putts.

Yeah, it's a little inside golf, but the point is that Mickelson is feeling the Masters mojo and Woods is a Masters afterthought only two weeks after winning at Bay Hill. Before he left the course to go work out, Woods jokingly said he could contend Sunday "if I can hit every green and 1-putt every green."

And thank you, Phil, for being there on a day when Rory McIlroy, the world's No. 2-ranked player, needed an Odor-Eater on his game.

McIlroy, another pre-tournament fave, was only one stroke behind second-round leaders Fred Couples and Jason Dufner when he teed off Saturday. Then a chicken bone got caught in his throat.

He shot an astonishing 42 on the front and had to birdie two of the last four holes to shoot 77. A year ago, with a four-stroke lead, McIlroy shot a final-round 80. So maybe he and Augusta National still need some marriage counseling.

Still, give McIlroy and playing partner Sergio Garcia, who shot a plaid-on-stripes-ugly 75, major points for their behavior. After they each birdied the par-3 12th hole, Garcia dropped his putter, walked toward McIlroy and held out his arms. Hugs for everyone.

"I think we both needed a hug," said McIlroy.

"Our bad holes were really bad," said Garcia. "Our good holes were bad."

So Woods, McIlroy and Garcia are no factor for Sunday. Couples and Dufner, each seven back, are goners.

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty ImagesThrough three rounds, Phil Mickelson hit 59.5 percent of his fairways and 59.3 percent of the greens in regulation. Ironically enough, those are the same numbers as Tiger Woods. The difference? Mickelson has 10 fewer putts.

Instead, draw a circle around all those within five shots of Hanson: Mickelson, Oosthuizen (7-under), Bubba Watson (6-under), Matt Kuchar (5-under) and Hunter Mahan, Padraig Harrington, Henrik Stenson and Lee Westwood (4-under). One of those guys is likely going to drive out Magnolia Lane late Sunday night wearing a green jacket.

Hanson is the leader, but Mickelson becomes the favorite. Phil won this tournament as recently as 2010 and knows the place so well he could moonlight as course superintendent.

"I just want to be in position," he said. "Because like I say, there's nothing more exciting than being in the final group on Sunday at the Masters, because you have a chance. And that's what we all want, is that opportunity."

Everyone has heard of Mickelson. His visor probably gets its own parking space at Augusta National.

Meanwhile, Hanson is a best-kept secret. He's always had the swing, but not the name.

I called his Lake Nona club in Orlando for a couple of personality tidbits and instead got the silent treatment. You would have thought I'd asked for his tax returns.

"Great guy, great family," said a club spokesperson, "but we protect the privacy of our members."

I talked to the great Annika Sorenstam, whose kids play golf with Hanson's kids back in Orlando. She said Hanson now has the short game to survive Augusta National.

If he somehow wins, Hanson won't be bigger in Sweden than "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." But to hold off Masters darling Mickelson on a Sunday? Hugely impressive.

"I know a one-shot lead over Mickelson is pretty much nothing," said Hanson, who also played his first two rounds with Lefty. "I don't think it matters too much."

It doesn't. All that matters is if anyone can out-Phil the guy who lives for this week and this tournament.

My prediction: Fat chance.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

MORE COMMENTARY

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter