If you wanted to concoct a foursome to play for the golf championship of the civilized world, you could hardly do better than join Raymond Floyd, Craig Stadler, Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson.
If you wanted to combine youth, power, colorful temperament, charisma and proven performance in major championships, these would be the gentlemen to invite. Certainly, there could be argument. Perhaps Jack Nicklaus isn't past his prime, even though he's only won one tournament since 1980. But let's not debate. Let's just enjoy what the 47th Masters has suddenly offered to the world of golf: a final on Monday (WDVM-TV-9, 4 p.m.) that holds promise of being classic.
At sundown of today's clear, crisp spring afternoon, those four names were atop the leader board. Talk about the cream rising and form holding. Stadler (1982), Watson ('81) and Ballesteros ('80) have won the last three Masters. Floyd shares the Masters scoring record ('76).
Stadler, trying to become only the second man in history to win back-to-back Masters, shot the day's lowest round (69) to tie Floyd (71) for the lead at six-under-par 210. One stroke behind is Ballesteros (73), who birdied the final hole. Just a shot behind Ballesteros at 212 is two-time Masters champion Watson (71), who says he'd better start making some putts because the guys in front of him aren't the kind to give him any gifts.
Spoiling the leader board's symmetry is long-hitting 22-year-old Jodie Mudd (72), who's tied with Watson; he's spunky but has finished in the top 10 in only one tournament in his life and hasn't done better than 18th in any '83 event. If he, or one of the gents just behind him--Gil Morgan (76-213), Keith Fergus (74-213), Tommy Nakajima (72-214)--wins, the golf kingdom will stand on its head. More likely longshots are fellows named Tom Kite, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and Greg Norman, all part of a logjam at 215.
This was an ideal day for the Augusta National to show the difference between true masters of the game and pretenders. Fairways were soft, making the 6,905-yard course play long. Sun, plus a diabolical swirling wind, dried the greens faster than the fairways and left putting treacherous. Imperfect iron shots bounced over the greens or went back off the front into deep valleys.
All in all, you had to golf your ball to survive this afternoon. Only Stadler broke 70, and just four players matched that number.
Asked about the quality of the prime contenders here, Watson chuckled and said, "They haven't done too badly, have they?"
Stadler and Floyd finished 1-2 on the PGA Tour money list last year. With seven major titles, Watson is generally considered the game's reigning monarch, although he doesn't dominate the sport as Nicklaus did. Ballesteros, a Spaniard who only plays eight tournaments a year in the U.S. because he finds the culture uncongenial and alien, is the best player on the European and international tour.
Handicapping among this quartet is best left to the men themselves.
"I won't have a problem in the world (sleeping) . . . Winning here last year puts a lot of good thoughts in your head," said Stadler, who birdied Nos. 2, 7, 13 and 17, bogeying only the sixth.
"Yesterday tested your patience," said Stadler, who doesn't have much patience to spare. "Today, anything looked good (by comparison) . . . I guess I get angry no matter what I'm doing--playing good or bad . . . But I look a lot worse than I am."
Three times, Stadler overcame remarkable obstacles. His opening drive was wild, diving into pine trees. Off a bed of pine needles, Stadler smoked a one-iron 220 yards onto the center of the green. "I just killed it, into the wind," he said. At the third, his drive hit a tree and dropped to earth just 136 yards off the tee; on the short, tight 360-yard hole, Stadler had to hit a three-wood into the wind. He left it eight feet from the hole and barely missed a birdie putt. Finally, at the 12th, Stadler got up and down from oblivion behind the green for par.
Stadler is reknowned as a streak player and a horse-for-course type. He's two weeks into a tear and Augusta National suits his game--long high fade, soft chipping touch, a knack for swift greens--perfectly.
Floyd, who missed a hole in one in the Amen Corner at the 12th "by three inches," fits in much the same category. He's a confidence man who finds his rhythm and, suddenly, for a few weeks, seems so sublimely arrogant that he struts around the course overlooking his occasional mistakes.
"A handful of players were (widely) picked to do well here, and there are a handful of players who expect to do well," said Floyd. And, now, there they are. "I've given myself a chance to win," continued Floyd, who admitted that he played cautiously this day, merely trying to stay near the lead, rather than gambling to take it.
"That's always been the hardest thing for me to do in a major . . . I don't expect Craig to play poorly . . . I've usually played well from the front . . . I will not try not to lose. I will go out trying to win."
Told that the Masters' first prize had been raised to $90,000, Floyd--a legendary gambler and money player--said, "Here? It's 90? I didn't know. Maybe I'll sleep better tonight."
Watson and Ballesteros won't sleep well unless they make some useful discoveries on the practice putting greens after their rounds. Both left the course moaning about the state of their usually marvelous putting.
This day of glamor names had its casualties, too. Third-round leader Gil Morgan shot 76 and seemed overwhelmed by the slick greens. Calvin Peete had the worst day of his life: 87. Arnold Palmer, one of six players who had to rise at dawn to complete second-round play, spent the morning miffed after making a daybreak bogey on the 18th hole; he began his afternoon round with four bogeys in the first five holes and shot 76 (218), despite an eagle at the 13th.
On Monday, 22 players will start the day at even-par 216 or better, all of them knowing they have a chance to shoot a fancy score and carry away a green jacket. However, if this day's sun and tricky wind return--as is predicted--the final round of this Masters will probably result in the coronation of a man who already owns a crown.