AUGUSTA, Ga. — The crowd around the 18th green at Augusta National was so sparse as evening approached on Saturday that you could walk up to the second row for a clear view. It was one of those perfect blissed-out moments, no wind, a blue-blue sky, when you can feel what’s coming just one day hence and how special it may be. How different that Masters perch will be on Sunday when the final pairing of Sweden’s Peter Hanson (65-207) and Phil Mickelson (66-208) walk the 72nd hole, one of them probably the victor.
Sometimes you encounter foreshadowing that, shall we say, lacks subtlety. Fans at the half-empty 18th in this third round turned their heads, reacting to a roar that erupted from what seemed to be an adjacent hole, perhaps a birdie yell. In reality, the rumbling sound was a response to Mickelson making a routine par save at the 16th green more than a thousand yards and a couple of pine forests away.
The giant scoreboard says Hanson leads this Masters by a shot and that he actually had the lowest round of this day, not Mickelson, despite Phil’s brilliance with a back-nine 30 that included a 40-foot eagle putt on the 13th hole and a daring full-swing flop shot by the 15th green that might have bought disaster but instead purchased a birdie.
Everyone here, including Hanson it seems, feels that a fourth green jacket in the space of nine years is destined for Mickelson’s closet. But it would be a mistake to assume that the kind of feats performed by both these men — Hanson had a back-nine 31 and a Peter-Phil better-ball would have been 8-under-par 28 — can be duplicated on demand. Did they put on a show that one, or both, can’t quite repeat?
The players within reach of them, Louis Oosthuizen (pronounced “West-hi-zen”), who won the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews, and the titanic, going-to-win-a-Masters-someday Bubba Watson are just two and three shots off the lead. In all, eight players are within five shots of Hanson, including Hunter Mahan, suddenly-hot three-major-man Padraig Harrington and often-thwarted-but-dangerous Lee Westwood.
Yet Masters facts tend to repeat, decade to decade, and in 18 of the last 20 years, the winner has come from the final pairing. Not last year, granted, but mighty often. If anything, Hanson and Mickelson have boosted each other’s confidence, playing together Thursday and Friday (both shot 142) and playing in sequential groups in this third round, each almost in awe of what they had watched the other man do.
“This was one of those special kind of Masters moments that I’ve been watching so many times [on] TV,” said Hanson, who’s played on the European Ryder Cup team, but, otherwise, never shared a stage like this. “You hear the crowd going wild when [Phil] made the eagle. It kind of helped me on 14. I feel him breathing down my neck and manage to get mine close on 14 and pick up another birdie on 15.”
Mickelson, who’s already had a win and a playoff loss this season and who has never seemed more comfortable with himself and his game, was equally impressed with the show Hanson provided in front of him.
“I’m watching him hole putts on 15 from the fringe, on 17. On 18, he knocks it a couple of feet,” said Mickelson, 41. “He just played phenomenally. It’s very difficult to try to follow those kind of birdies when you’re watching it right in front of you.”
There’s seldom been a final round Masters pairing with a star so flamboyantly gifted and a leader so modest and aware of his underdog role, even though he has a shot in hand. “It’s going to be tough” to sleep, Hanson said. “I’ve never led in anything like this.
“Phil is just amazing with the wedges. When I ended up in the same spot [behind the 15th green], I just sort of hit a bump-and-run up there. He goes up and just hits a full swing and goes straight up in the air!
“He has a few shots around the green that I’m not even close to.”
For many years, Mickelson was the man who always seemed to be lurking in fine position on Saturday night, yet never pulled off a Sunday-comeback win here, going to sleep in various years in third, third, second, fifth, second, fourth and fifth place.
Now, he seems so confident, at peace and in love with Augusta that it’s hard to recollect old Pholdin’ Phil. On this course, which Fred Couples calls “Phil’s park,” he’s always chill these days. Even when he triple-bogeyed the 10th hole on Thursday to fall to 4 over par, he didn’t rattle.
“I love it here and I love nothing more than being in the last group on Sunday at the Masters,” he said.
On Thursday, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus hit the ceremonial first-group tee shots at 7:40 a.m. That day, Mickelson’s tee time was the very last group of the day, a full six hours later. Yet Phil was there to shake the hands of the Big Three of olden days, a gesture that surprised and touched all three, especially since no other famous current stars showed up. Much that once seemed like Phil schmaltz when he was young and bumptious now seems mature, genuine and generous.
All that’s well and good, but it doesn’t help you hit shots on Masters Sunday. There’s a treacherous dynamic in high-pressure pairings. One man’s mistakes or manner can infect the other. Will Hanson and Mickelson influence each other on Easter Sunday? They certainly inspired each other on their 65-66 day. If that synergy arrives again, this is a two-man match; in which one player is certain he can win, while the other says, “I know it’s going to be a tough night. I probably won’t be watching a lot of Golf Channel.”
The back nine on Sunday is inspiring. But the front nine, which the public doesn’t know as well, loves to play games with your mental health. No. 1 is the hardest hole on the course. How lovely. By the eighth tee, you can be 3 over par and back in the pack.
Mickelson knows all of this like the back of his hand. In golf’s current Big Three, he is now, easily, the most mature. Tiger Woods says his game is still a work in progress — or should that be wreck in progress? McIlroy can shoot a record 16-under to win the U.S. Open or, inexplicably, go out in 42 when he seems perfectly positioned for a run.
The Masters has its long love affairs with a handful of great players. And those champions love back — the crowds, the place itself and the demands of this particular course where power, imagination and resiliency are essential. On Thursday, Mickelson was in the weeds, far off the 10th fairway, on his way to a triple bogey and a 4-over- par start. Since then, he’s 12 under par for the last 44 holes.
Pull up a chair. The roar of anticipation at the 18th green is already starting to build.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/