AUGUSTA, Ga. — You have to do three things to win the Masters: Drive well, putt well and get just a bit lucky. On Saturday, Justin Thomas did one of them.
Thomas shot one under par to bring his 54-hole total to 10-under. In most years, that would put him in prime position to snatch the green jacket. But the course has been so soft, and the scoring so low, that he instead finds himself in sixth place, six strokes back of leader Dustin Johnson.
“Disappointing about wraps it up,” Thomas said. “I played beautifully today. That's probably what's most frustrating is I hit the ball so flush. I hit a lot of shots exactly how I wanted. Just one of those days where stuff didn't go my way. [It] was a couple yards here or there—a couple yards from carrying the bunker on 8 or just a little left, and I have a 5-wood in. You know, hit some mud balls on a couple good tee shots, but that's just the way it is. I know one thing is I can't make four bogeys on the back nine if I expect to win this golf tournament.”
Those four bogeys summed up his day. He hit 11 fairways, good for ninth in the tournament. But he missed some crucial putts. And he kept finding himself on the wrong end of those Augusta quirks.
The back nine usually yields lower scores than the front, and it has played about half a stroke easier this week. So when Thomas played his first nine holes in two under par on Saturday, then birdied No. 10 and made par on No. 11, he looked ready to join Johnson in Sunday’s final group. Johnson was at 14-under through 12. A birdie on No. 12 would have brought Thomas within a stroke. He grabbed a 9-iron and went for the flag. He thought he hit it perfectly. But the wind changed direction, as it often does there. His ball ended up nine yards past the pin, above the hole.
“That was one of my best swings of the day,” Thomas said afterward. “When you're hitting to a target that small and narrow, you know, when you're playing a skosh there and it goes the other way, that's a difference of four or five yards.”
Then his second problem kicked in: He rolled his 27-foot downhill putt six feet past the hole. His second putt rolled eight feet the other way. Finally, he sank the third.
Thomas hit a good drive and a decent approach on No. 14. But he three-putted there, too.
The par-5, 530-yard No. 15 poses twin challenges: a pond in front of the green and a pond behind it. Thomas was worried about the near one. “If there's no water there, it's a perfect 6-iron,” he said afterward. But there is water there, so he went with the 5-iron. He had to hit a draw around a tree, but he hit it with a little too much draw and the wind kept pushing it left. It landed just left of the green and rolled in the far pond. Thomas admitted “it wasn't a good golf shot,” but also said, “it very easily could have not gone in the water as well if it would have landed up top. If that ball lands on the edge of the green, it's going to stay up.”
A chip to eight feet away still gave him a chance to make par. But he missed that putt, too.
Thomas showed flashes of the brilliance that could launch him back into contention on Sunday. He stuffed his drive on No. 16 to six feet and made birdie. On No. 17, his drive sailed 247 yards into the trees on the right side of the fairway. But he smacked his next shot onto the green. He beamed as he handed the 5-iron back to his caddie, Jimmy Johnson. “That was pretty sick,” Thomas said.
Then, on No. 18, he just missed the green with his approach and ended up in the bunker. He needed to get up and down for par. He missed that putt, too.
If Thomas makes those reasonable-length putts on 12, 14, 15 and 18, he is 14 under par, two strokes behind Johnson. Instead, Johnson will enjoy the luxury of a fan-free Sunday at Augusta, where he will not have to hear the roars that warn him a challenger is charging.
“It's going to take something pretty special for me to have a chance tomorrow, but I know I can do it,” Thomas said. “It's just about doing it.”
He drove the ball well on Saturday. There’s not much he can do about luck. So as the sky turned so dark the ball was barely visible, Thomas was the only player on the practice green behind the first tee, working on his putting.