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Leaders Seek First Major Crown in Masters Shootout

Augusta (United States) (AFP) – A tension-packed shootout among 15 golfers bunched within five shots atop the leaderboard began unfolding Saturday as the third round of the Masters opened at Augusta National.

Co-leader Sergio Garcia, playing his 72nd consecutive major tournament and 74th overall, is still seeking his first major title.

The 37-year-old Spaniard’s years of major frustration include four runner-up efforts — the first to Tiger Woods as a teen in the 1999 PGA Championship — and a Masters-best share of fourth in 2004.

“I’ve shown myself many times that I can contend and I can truly feel like I can win, not only one, but more than one,” Garcia said.

“I’m excited about the challenges that this weekend is going to bring and hopefully I’ll step up to them and I’ll be able to be up there on Sunday with a solid chance at winning this beautiful tournament.”

Adding to the drama for Garcia is the fact that Sunday’s final round falls on what would have been the 60th birthday of his idol, Seve Ballesteros, a two-time Masters champion who died of brain cancer in 2011 at age 54.

“It would mean a lot. It’s difficult to describe it until it happens. It’s not Sunday,” Garcia said. “That would be the best thing that could happen to me.”

Garcia was set to tee off alongside American Charley Hoffman in the final afternoon pairing, both standing on four-under par 140 for 36 holes alongside Belgium’s Thomas Pieters and eighth-ranked US star Rickie Fowler.

None of the four have ever won a major crown. Nor has American William McGirt, alone in fifth on 142.

Pieters has a chance to become the first player since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 to win the Masters on his initial try.

It’s a feat that could also be achieved by 22-year-old Spaniard Jon Rahm, who was sharing sixth on 143 with Americans Fred Couples and Ryan Moore and England’s Justin Rose, the reigning Olympic champion.

Brisk winds for the first two rounds over the famed 7,435-yard layout helped bunch the leaders, providing the largest pack atop the tournament after halfway since 1973.

Blustery conditions blew away Hoffman’s first-day lead of four strokes, the biggest at the Masters since 1955 after an opening 65 only for him to soar to 75 Friday.

Fowler made Friday’s biggest charge with the day’s low round of 67, an eagle at the par-5 second his brightest moment.

Couples, a 57-year-old American who won the 1992 Masters, could become the oldest major champion in history, eclipsing the mark of Julius Boros, who was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship.

– Attack time for McIlroy –

And five-time major champion Phil Mickelson, on level par 144 through 36 holes with fellow past Masters champions Jordan Spieth and Adam Scott, could become the oldest winner in Masters history.

If the US left-hander wins his fourth green jacket two months shy of his 47th birthday, he would break the age mark of Jack Nicklaus, who was 46 in 1986 when he won his record sixth Masters crown and record 18th major title.

Scott, who in 2013 became the first Australian to win the Masters, and Spieth, who won the 2015 Masters but squandered a big lead last year with a back-nine Sunday meltdown, both followed opening 75s with 69s Friday to leap back into the hunt.

World number two Rory McIlroy, a four-time major winner seeking a Masters title to complete a career grand slam, lurked at one-over 145 alongside Dane Soren Kjeldsen and American Matt Kuchar, the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist.

“I feel I’m playing well enough and I’m in a good frame of mind where I can go out there and attack and make some birdies and try to get closer to the lead,” McIlroy said. “There’s a long way to go.”

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