Koepka, Tiger and Phil among Masters Sunday storylines

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Brooks Koepka has played this perfectly. Not only has he been the clear best player at Augusta National this week, but the luck of the draw has favored the four-time major winner. Koepka is now 30 holes from winning his fifth major after third-round play was suspended Saturday afternoon.

As the weather worsened Friday, Koepka finished his round with the sun still peeking through the growing gray clouds and his score at a tournament-leading 12-under. The afternoon wave had to face the windier and wetter (and tree-tumbling) conditions that forced the tournament to eventually be suspended for the day.

Koepka returned Saturday to a course that was playing significantly longer, colder and wet and began a third round that only lasted a handful of hours — six holes in the case of the leaders — and served to extend his lead before play was suspended again in the face of the squall. He birdied the first and watched as the field behind him struggled to keep up. By the time the horn sounded, he had doubled a two-shot lead over Jon Rahm and the next closest player was amateur Sam Bennett at 6 under.

The forecast should rise by about 20 degrees come Sunday, and with likely no rain in the forecast and a softer golf course, anything could happen over the course of the day. Yet there’s something about Koepka and the way he’s playing that harkens back to a time where he was the most dominant player in the world and it felt like no one else stood a chance if he was showing up to a major, let alone if he was up by four strokes heading into Sunday.

This week, with all the noise around the first major of the year featuring LIV Golf players, Koepka has shown up and neither acknowledged the noise or added to it. He has simply ignored it. The result has been helped by the draw surely, but it’s impossible to deny that his process and overall approach has been just as responsible for the success as he stands on the brink of a fifth major championship.

Here’s what to watch for on the final day of the Masters:

The Brooks Koepka story arc

If any other multi-major winner had suffered a gruesome knee injury that had stalled his fast-rising career the way Koepka did only to come back at the Masters and win it … Well, it’s no Tiger Woods, but it would make for a tale that would have sportswriters salivating.

But Koepka is more complicated than a neatly-packaged comeback story. He doesn’t give in to narratives with stock quotes meant to fit perfectly in the stories of those who ask him. He has been more vulnerable and honest, but only when he chooses to be, and he clearly cares about winning but still seems a bit reticent to show it. Oh yeah, and he all but admitted this week that he may not have bolted to LIV if it hadn’t been for his health, which caused him to punch the window of a Mercedes after missing the cut at the 2021 Masters.

All of this is what makes Sunday so fascinating. Koepka has returned to form, dominating par 5s (8-under through nine this week) and pouring in clutch par putts like a machine. But the golf world is no longer the same as it was when he last thrived. A win for him no longer just means an addition to his major count or a step closer to completing the grand slam. Now, it means LIV will have a player with a major since its inception. It means his success will be used to bolster arguments and embolden the ongoing battle between the tours, even if its players have denied the animosity this week.

Even Rahm was asked on Saturday how he thought Koepka would fare playing 29 holes in one day since he’s “probably not used to playing that many.”

“I don’t think that means much, obviously,” Rahm said. “When you’re in the position we’re in, adrenaline kicks in and it doesn’t really matter.”

Koepka seems uninterested in such trivial matters. His focus is, as he has unabashedly characterized it in the past, to win majors. He has struggled at LIV until last week, when he won their Orlando event ahead of the Masters. It was as if he knew he had to flip the switch, and now, he’s turned back the clock and reminded the golf world that it doesn’t matter what tour he plays for. If he’s healthy, every major he shows up to could be his.

Can anyone catch Koepka?

Four shots at Augusta with more than one and a half rounds to play isn’t exactly an insurmountable lead. The question is: Who can step up and do it?

There’s no question Rahm is plenty capable. The Spaniard struggled with the windy and wet conditions Saturday afternoon, bogeying two of his first six holes. Perhaps a reset and restart tomorrow is exactly what he needed. Rahm thrives on being able to drive the ball a mile, and the sudden turn from a hot and humid Augusta to a cold and rainy one hasn’t helped. Case in point: His driving distance has dropped nearly 35 yards from the first round to Saturday’s six holes.

Rahm has an adjusted driver in the bag this week, which has helped him hit 84 percent of fairways, but he will have to tighten his approach game and putting if he’ll have any chance of catching Koepka and winning his fourth tournament this year come Sunday.

“I’m feeling confident,” Rahm said after the third round was suspended. “Playing good golf and there’s a lot to be played.”

Below Rahm is a field of players that may need not just low weekend rounds Sunday, but more importantly, for Koepka to falter. Amateur Bennett has been one of the best stories of the week, but a two-bogey start has put him behind the eight-ball. The Cinderella story may be coming to an end before the final round begins.

If there’s any player that could get into the mix with a strong finish to the third round Sunday morning it is Collin Morikawa, who is at 5 under with 11 holes to play. Morikawa reached 7 under Saturday before the weather took a turn for the worse and he bogeyed his last two holes.

Rounding out those who are eight shots back are Patrick Cantlay, Matt Fitzpatrick and Viktor Hovland, who was the first-round leader. I’d still take Morikawa over those guys, but Cameron Young at 4 under is equally intriguing. The 25-year-old has been quietly playing well all week save for a few mistakes that have set him back (he’s posted two double bogeys in his last nine holes and could make some noise from the back come Sunday.)

Phil Mickelson watch

Much like Koepka was perhaps not the LIV player most expected would thrive at Augusta this week (see: Cameron Smith and Dustin Johnson), Phil Mickelson sitting inside the top-10 with 30 holes to play in the Masters is a far more mind-boggling reality.

Sure, there’s some explanation — mainly, Mickelson himself talking about how he doesn’t have to be perfect on this golf course — but it’s still shocking to see a player who has struggled as much as Mickelson has over the past year find himself in this position.

“I’m going to go on a tear pretty soon,” Mickelson said. “You wouldn’t think it. You look at the scores. But I’ve been playing exactly how I played yesterday, hitting the ball great, turning 65s, 66s into 77s. I’m ready to go on a tear.”

How has Mickelson done it? If you’re looking for a simple answer, it’s putting. He’s had only one three-putt all week long and leads the field on the greens. On Saturday morning, Mickelson got to 6 under for a brief second after hitting a 40-foot putt for birdie on the 6th hole. Two bogeys on the next two holes brought him back down to earth a bit, but there’s no denying this is the best golf he’s played in a long time. Mickelson also credited this week to a driver improvement with help from, “one of my teammates Brendan Steele.”

LIV is undoubtedly the storyline that will surface should Koepka win and Mickelson finish in the top-10. It’s not just them — Joaquin Niemann sits at 4 under and tied for eighth, while 12 of 18 LIV players in the field this week made the cut. Koepka, for his part, seems to want to avoid linking his success this week to LIV, but my guess is if he’s putting on the green jacket Sunday, there will be plenty of chatter about it from LIV’s stakeholders, namely Greg Norman.

Tiger troubles

Woods needed a bogey from Justin Thomas early Saturday morning in order to make the cut. Thomas gave him two, missed the cut himself and was likely headed out of Augusta by the time Woods had to tee off in the third round.

The five-time champion extended his streak to 23 made cuts at the Masters (tying Fred Couples and Gary Player for the most ever), but what followed was not exactly ideal. Woods played only seven holes before play stopped Saturday afternoon, bogeyed two, put two balls in the water on different holes and had two double bogeys. Of the players who made the cut, Woods is in last place heading into Sunday.

It was more than just the numbers. Woods not only looked miserable as he struggled in the tough conditions, he was also grimacing and limping in a much more pronounced manner than he had the last two days. While the suspension likely came at an opportune time for Woods, a 29-hole walk for his leg looms on Sunday. The chances that Woods withdraws are, I think, slim to none, but it’s hard not to imagine that being a far more favorable scenario given his physical state as well as the fact that he’s playing for pride only. That, of course, might be more than enough to see him in red tomorrow.

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