HE’S bidding to follow in some famous Spanish footsteps. Seve Ballesteros, after all, won here twice – 1980 and 1983. So, too, did Jose Maria Olazabal in 1994 and 1999. The latter, remarkably, was the last time a European slipped into the Green Jacket.
Now Miguel Angel Jimenez has the scent of victory in his nostrils at Augusta National. The 50-year-old, who is set to make his Champions Tour debut here in Georgia next week, catapulted himself through the field with a third-round six-under 66 – the best score of the week by a clear two shots at the time he signed for his card. Shortly afterwards, another colourful but much younger character, Rickie Fowler, came in with a 67. It left the pair sharing the clubhouse lead on three-under-par as Bubba Watson, the 2012 winner and halfway pacesetter, made an adventurous start with an eagle and four bogeys in his first seven holes.
It’s been suggested that a lack of English could hinder Jimenez’s hopes of being Ryder Cup captain one day. His after-round interview in the state-of-the art media centre here surely knocked that one on the head.
“I played very solid all day. I feel very nice. You know, beautiful day there, just light breeze sometimes. It’s great. Great to play golf on a day like that,” he said in reply to being asked for some general thoughts.
He’d just made Friday’s halfway cut on four-over. It left him heading out in the fourth match along with 1988 winner Sandy Lyle. Out in 34 after birdies at the third and fifth, Jimenez transformed his round by starting 3-3 on the inward journey. He then dropped his only shot of the day before making three birdies in four holes from the 13th, where he hit the hole from a back bunker with his eagle attempt.
The Spaniard is no stranger to being in contention with a round to go in a major. As recently as last July, he was in with a chance of winning the Open Championship at Muirfield. His game is like the Rioja he loves – it gets better with age. “Today I was very patient,” he reflected. “I committed to every shot. That’s the secret to play this golf course, and that’s probably the difference between yesterday [a 76] and today [a 66].”
He’s played on four Ryder Cup teams, two of them as a winner. He was one of Olazabal’s assistants as Medinah. He wants to be back in the thick of the action again at Gleneagles in September, though.
“Apart from next week’s event, I don’t want to commit to play the Champions Tour or any more Senior events, apart from the British Open Senior, because I want to put myself in place the Ryder Cup,” he said. “I know I have a chance to play in that and I would love to play at Gleneagles,”
Fowler, a strong candidate for Tom Watson’s team in Perthshire, started the day in the middle of the pack but will also head into the final round with a chance of claiming a maiden major victory after a six-birdie effort. “The biggest thing for me today was finally taking advantage of the par 5s [where he made birdies at all four],” he reported. Yesterday I made two bogeys on them.”
Fowler, a member of the winning US Walker Cup team at Royal County Down in 2007, has been left in the shadow somewhat by Jordan Spieth over the past year or so but could be ready to re-emerge in spectacular fashion.
“It feels good to get a solid round in,” added the 25-year-old. “The greens were a little bit softer today compared to yesterday afternoon. So it gave us the opportunity to get close to a few pins and hold some greens on the par 5s.”
Handily placed just outside the top ten heading into the weekend after opening rounds of 71 and 72 on his Masters debut, Stephen Gallacher slipped to his first double-bogey of the week at the fourth. A second one at the ninth finally seemed to unsettle the 39-year-old and, as the wheels came off, he let five more shots slip at the tenth, 11th, where his second found the water, and 12th. At that stage, it had become a real test of his temperament, especially on a red-hot day, but he bounced back from that run with back-to-back birdies at the 13th and 14th, where he almost holed his approach.
Earlier, Rory McIlroy was “beaten” by his marker, local amateur and Augusta National member Jeff Knox, in the first game out. The two-times major winner birdied three of the last four holes for a 71 but, if it had been a match, he’d have shaken hands with Knox on the 15th green after a 4 and 3 loss.