Behind Rose after he steadied himself Friday to yo-yo from 7 under par to 4 under par and back to 7 under par, there’s Jordan Spieth, the hip pick to win because of his former champion’s intricate knowledge and his win last week in Texas suggesting repair after three years of struggle with golf’s meanness. He stood 5 under par after his 68 on Friday and told reporters in Augusta, Ga., “I came in thinking [I could win],” and, “I’m in position now to think that for sure, but at the halfway point, I would have been pleased with being two back.”
There’s Justin Thomas, of course, for whom any eventual win at the Masters already would qualify as expected, given his 2017 PGA Championship and his 2021 Players and a bunch of other evidence. He stood at 4 under after his 67 and said, “I just need to get in my own little zone and my own little game, and I feel like if I do that well, I should have a pretty good chance.”
There’s Tony Finau, the nice man who keeps finishing second or close to second, who stood at 4 under and who said of getting close but not quite getting there, “It keeps me hungry, it keeps me humble.” There’s Collin Morikawa at 2 under par with the game always ready to go from merely sublime to more sublime. Witness his closing 65-64 as he won the 2020 PGA Championship.
Peering behind Rose, you have to notice guys who haven’t won a major yet but figure to someday even given the mathematical improbabilities of so many extraordinary players and so few majors (four) per year. They include Xander Schauffele, whose first 14 majors include seven hollering top-10 finishes. They include Hideki Matsuyama at 4 under at age 29 after seven top-10 finishes in majors already as he aims to bring Japan a first male major title. They include Marc Leishman, the 37-year-old Australian at 5 under who already finished tied for fourth at the 2013 Masters and who said: “This is the position I wanted to be in. My game’s finally feeling good,” even as he also said it would take two low rounds to win and said, “I mean, there’s so many good players.”
And they include Si Woo Kim, the 25-year-old from Seoul who won the Players at 21 and stands at 4 under.
They include the two guys at 6 under. There’s Brian Harman, the Savannah-born, University of Georgia-schooled 34-year-old who finished second at the 2017 U.S. Open in Wisconsin but knows the air so intricately in Georgia. And there’s Will Zalatoris, the 24-year-old charger from San Francisco and Wake Forest, whose 68 followed a 70 to giggle at the applicable phrase “his first Masters,” and who said, “I wanted to be here my entire life,” that entirety not yet considerable.
As if that weren’t enough, there are two Camerons when one would have sufficed for fearsomeness. Cameron Champ, at 4 under, looks like a comet and finished 10th at the 2020 PGA, and Cameron Smith, the Australian who finished second to Johnson at the Masters in November, has four major top-10s already.
Even U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, whose struggles around Augusta have developed their own identity, found his way to 1 under par even as he said, “Yeah, I don’t think you can ever figure this place out. There’s so many things going on around here,” and then spoke of wind.
That’s a lot to glimpse without wincing, but at least Rose, 40, the 2013 U.S. Open champion and 2017 Masters runner-up in a playoff, showed Friday he could stare down himself. After his 65 on Thursday and his eagle and seven birdies between holes Nos. 8 and 17 represented “some of the best golf I’ve ever seen,” as Spieth told ESPN, Rose started out in a way that showed how golf can get sore and exact penance for such. He bogeyed Nos. 1, 4, 6 and 7 and birdied No. 2. He needed “a good two-putt on No. 9 just to stop the rut,” he said.
“I was joking [that] the finger was heading toward the panic button a little bit,” he told reporters in Augusta. “I had a little talk with myself on 8 and said, ‘You’re still leading the Masters,’ and I just changed my mind-set a little bit and started to play match play against the golf course. I scratched a line on my scorecard and told myself I was three down and could I go ahead and beat the golf course from that point on. I had a putt on 18 to win my match 1-up, but unfortunately it just slipped by. But an honorable draw.”
Rose said, “You can see the leader board and who is stacking up behind, and I feel like there’s a lot of firepower there where you can’t ever really hold anyone back to a number.”
Or you can always refrain from looking.
— Chuck Culpepper