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LORAN SMITH COLUMN:The third round can be magical — and oh, so cruel

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

AUGUSTA — The pattern, historically, is that a little more than half the time, the third-round leader at Augusta loses the tournament. That has happened 45 times in Masers history, but on 41 occasions, the 54-hole leader has gone on to win a Green Jacket.

Arnold Palmer led after 54 holes and won four Masters’ titles. Jack Nicklaus, six time champion, held the lead after 54 holes on four of his championship years.

The hard-luck guys with the 54-hole lead have been Sam Snead, Ben Crenshaw and Ray Floyd, who lost the tournament three times each with the third-round lead. There is something redeeming in their case — they were able to collect a Green Jacket in other years.

It is perhaps easy to identify the third-round leaders who experienced the most crushing defeats. That, in the view here, would be Greg Norman who lost in a playoff to Larry Mize, an Augusta native, 25 years ago this week in 1987 and in 1996 when he had a six-stroke lead at the start of the final round, that time losing to Nick Faldo who scored 67 to Norman’s 78. Then there was Len Mattice, whose playoff loss to Mike Weir in 2003 was so devastating, it brought him to tears.

Norman, whose career is as remembered as much for his “might have been” moments as any successes, including two British Open titles, seemed to be in the finest position to collect a Green Jacket as any competitor in Masters history at No. 11 in ‘87. Larry Mize, who had gotten into a playoff with a fine birdie putt at the final hole of regulation, had pushed his approach shot 140 yards off the green to the right. Norman landed his second shot in the middle of the green. He appeared to be two putts from victory when Mize slammed his third shot into the hole for a three and a Masters Green Jacket.

That wasn’t the last time Norman would experience humiliation at Augusta. Nine years later in 1996, Norman had a six stroke lead after 54 holes and was paired with Nick Faldo in the final round. The Australian’s lead began eroding early on Sunday as he blundered his way around the golf course, scoring 78 while Faldo posted a 67. Norman seemed destined NOT to win a Green Jacket.

An interesting footnote took place in the third round of the ‘96 Masters. Faldo took an unusually long time with his birdie putt on the 17th hole. He made the putt, but he took a long time sizing up the putt, desperately wanting a birdie. He knew that if he made birdie that it would enable him to be paired with Norman in the final round. You can draw your own conclusion, but those who followed Norman’s career, knew what it meant to Faldo to make the final round pairing.

If you believe in fate, then you have to believe that Len Mattice was a dogged victim. A journeyman player at best, Mattice was almost the Cinderella story of the Masters when he reached the 18th hole on Sunday in 2003. A par at the final hole would have given him a 64 for the day, and, as it turned out, the Masters title.

However, he bogeyed the final hole which allowed Canadian Mike Weir with a crucial seven foot birdie putt on the final hole to force a playoff.

Mattice then butchered the first playoff hole, No. 10, banging the ball in and around the trees to take himself out of contention and allowing Weir to win the Masters with a bogey on the first playoff hole.

We can only imagine what a Masters victory would have meant to Mattice, but one lousy hole forced him into oblivion.