AUGUSTA, GA. — If someone is going to grab this 77th Masters and pull it away from the tedium of rules and their interpretations, he hadn’t clearly identified himself as of Saturday night. There were, perhaps, a dozen heads that met a dozen pillows within an easy drive of Augusta National Golf Club, each believing they will rise Sunday morning with the opportunity to claim a green jacket. But who will?
The cast, in order of appearance: Brandt Snedeker, a Tennesseean by birth, residence, and college (Vanderbilt), who shot a tidy, bogey-free 69 that pushed him to 7 under par for the tournament. Meet, too, Angel Cabrera, the sturdy, carefree Argentinian who won here in 2009 and birdied two of the final three holes to also shoot 69 and also get to 7 under.
Each, in his own way, understands Sunday’s task.
“This is what I’ve worked my whole life for, is [Sunday],” Snedeker said.
Yet there are a lot of lives poured into Sunday, and only one can be rewarded. Behind Snedeker and Cabrera: little more than flying elbows, trying to create space. Thirteen players — including Tiger Woods, who we’ll get to — sit within five shots of the lead. At Augusta, on a Sunday, that’s within sight.
“It’s going to be a tense day,” said Adam Scott, another character worthy of introduction. Scott would like to be the first Australian to win here, and he’s only a shot back. Marc Leishman, the unexpected first-round co-leader from Australia who refuses to go away, would like to leapfrog Scott and earn his nation’s adoration. Jason Day, tied with Leishman at 5 under, looked for so long to be the Aussies’ best hope before he bogeyed Nos. 17 and 18.
And go all the way back to Woods, who hasn’t yet broken 70, who missed his share of teensy-weensy putts Saturday, who was docked two shots by rules officials — a story line that dominated the third round — and yet trails only six men, four back at 3 under.
Anyone that far behind could win. “It’s doable,” said Jim Furyk, who’s 2 under.
“You’re going to have to make some birdies to be in the hunt,” Scott said. “You can’t just sit back and play defense.”
Saturday, though, defense seemed a reasonable strategy. On a day that seemed ripe for scoring — calm, bright, glorious — very few scored. “The course was extremely difficult,” Snedeker said. South Africa’s Tim Clark went out early and posted a sterling 67 to get to 3 under, but that held up as the day’s best round. The longer the shadows grew, the less likely it seemed someone would go low.
“It was a very quiet day,” Snedeker said. “I didn’t hear a lot of roars.”
Yet when Day made his only birdie of the round at 13, he had a two-shot lead at 7 under, and players started to fall away — notably Fred Couples with a triple bogey at 17. Snedeker, then, became the steady presence. In 2008, he was second after 36 holes, second again after 54. He responded with a 77 on Sunday, and tied for third.
“I had no clue what I was doing in 2008,” Snedeker said. “None. Had no game plan.”
This year, he won at Pebble Beach and had two runner-up finishes — and then missed six weeks with a rib injury. Now, he is healthy — as is Cabrera, who has dealt with problems with his teeth, problems with his left wrist, problems with his back, problems with his digestive system. And when he made his putt at 18 to pull back into a share of the lead, he raised his hand to signify his return.
“It’s more about confidence,” Cabrera said through an interpreter.
That is, now, something Snedeker has as well. Lest anyone think Snedeker, 32, will approach Sunday tepidly, listen to his final comments to reporters Saturday evening.
“I’ve spent 32 years of my life getting ready for tomorrow, and it’s all been a learning process,” Snedeker said. “And I am completely, 100 percent sure that I’m ready to handle no matter what happens tomorrow. I’m going to be disappointed if I don’t win — period.”
It is a period that could conclude the thoughts of a dozen players in the hours before the Masters is decided.