AUGUSTA, Ga. — For a short time, it appeared that defending Masters champion Bubba Watson might play his way back into the tournament, despite being the first one out Saturday after making the cut on the number. Four birdies in his first 10 holes brought him to even par, just six off the lead and with plenty of scoring holes left.
But he hit his second shot into the water to the left of the 11th green and made a double bogey. It was set up by a drive that bounced off a spectator, prompting Watson to deliver a signed Titleist (“Sorry! Bubba”) to the uninjured man, who didn’t want to disclose his name: “My wife doesn’t know that I’m here.”
Watson came home in 37, shot 70, and is at 2 over par. Because an odd number of players (61) made the cut and twosomes are used in the final two rounds, Watson was paired with noncompeting marker Jeff Knox, an Augusta National member who holds the course record (61) from the members’ tees. Knox, like Watson, is a University of Georgia graduate.
Knox hit his drive on the 10th hole well right of the fairway, not far from where Watson was in last year’s playoff, when he hooked his approach onto the green, setting up his victory.
“I need Bubba to come here and hit it for me,” Knox quipped to the assembled spectators.
Watson will start the final round nine shots behind leaders Brandt Snedeker and Angel Cabrera. The record for the largest 54-hole comeback by a Masters winner is eight shots, by Jackie Burke in 1956. Assuming Watson doesn’t win, it means there will remain only three players to win the Masters in consecutive years: Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90), and Tiger Woods (2001-02).
Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson played their way out of the tournament. McIlroy shot a 7-over 79 to tumble down the leaderboard after starting the round in a tie for 13th. He played his final eight holes in 7 over, starting with a triple-bogey on No. 11, the first of two 7s on his card (he added another at the 15th). In his last four Masters, McIlroy has had an 80, 79, and two 77s.
“It’s very disappointing. I felt good coming in here, I played really well the first couple of days,” McIlroy said. “The margins are very small on this course.”
Mickelson was only slightly better, with a 40 on the back nine to complete a 77, so he’ll need to wait another year to win a fourth green jacket. Mickelson put balls in the water on Nos. 11, 12, and 13, and the 77 equals his highest Masters score, from the final round in 2007.
No penalty strokes for Tianlang Guan in the third round, but he failed to make a birdie for the second straight day and shot 77. No matter what he shoots in the final round, he’ll join the new champion in Butler Cabin as low amateur . . . Dead last among the 61 players who made the cut is Keegan Bradley, who struggled to an 82 and is 12 over, three shots behind Guan and two behind Sandy Lyle (81). Bradley made a double bogey on No. 1 for the second straight day — he’s 7 over on the hole in seven competitive rounds — and added another double at the 12th, part of a back-nine 43.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.