Paul Casey of England emerged as Europe’s leading challenger for the coveted Green Jacket in the 68th Masters Tournament as first and second round leader, Justin Rose, slipped out of contention on a day of fluctuating fortunes for the leading contenders at Augusta National Golf Club.
Casey, on his Masters debut, fired a four under par 68 for a total of 212 and the 26 year old goes into the final round of the season’s first Major Championship just two strokes behind leaders, Chris DiMarco and Phil Mickelson of the United States.
DiMarco matched Casey’s 68 and Mickelson carded a 69 to propel the two Americans to the top of the leaderboard on 210, six under par, as Rose suffered stoically, shooting an 81 to drop back from first into a share of 20th place. However the young Englishman handled his disappointment in the manner of a model professional, chatting amiably to the media and recounting his experience with a rueful smile.
Meanwhile only three shots off the pace are Europe’s Ryder Cup Captain, Bernhard Langer, and Volvo Order of Merit winner, Ernie Els of South Africa, the former seeking his third Green Jacket and the latter eagerly coveting his first. Langer shot a 69 and Els a 71 for a three under par total of 213.
Casey, a three time winner on The European Tour International Schedule, picked up four birdies on the front nine and another at the 15th as he established himself as a live challenger for the title at the first attempt.
As his World Golf Championships-World Cup partner, Rose, struggled after two outstanding days, Casey admitted that a new relaxed approach had served him well this week.
“I think I’ve put too much pressure on myself in the past” he said. “I’ve almost tried too hard and I think I’ve been very relaxed and approached things the correct way. I’ve got friends and family in town and it’s just a very relaxed environment.”
He added: “Traditionally we have had a lot of success in this tournament and I would dearly love to continue the trend. The Masters has something special because we’re back here every year. I would love to be putting on that Green Jacket and to be up in that special locker room upstairs.”
Despite the opportunity to add to his wardrobe collection, Langer was quick to emphasise his determination not to play in this year’s Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills. He said: “I don’t know why everybody keeps asking. The answer is no. I said that before and once I make up my mind, that’s it. I said I would not play. I want to be Captain”.
The highlight of Langer’s round was an eagle three at the 15th hole, added: “I played very well. The first two days I wasn’t totally comfortable with my swing and rhythm but I called my coach, Willie Hoffman, last night and he said to try a few things, which I did and my rhythm came back.”
Els, who has won three Major titles but not the Masters, admitted: "It's all going to come down to the back nine. You want to get yourself into position because a lot of stuff can happen out there. You have to keep the faith."
Rose made bogeys at the first three holes, and nine in all, as he signed for an 81 and said: "I am still a bit shell shocked, to be honest. I just got off to a bad, bad start and every little minor mistake got punished. That's obviously what Augusta is all about. Today it bit back in a large way.
"I got a beautiful ovation at the last, which was a nice touch but no matter what happened today it was going to be a great learning experience. At the age opf 23 it's not the end of the world. It hurts because this week I was thinking I was playing well enough to win so that's a shame."
Sweden’s Fredrik Jacobson and Irishman Padraig Harrington stepped up their challenges to be fitted for a certain Green Jacket at Augusta National when they fired 67 and 68 respectively to make mighty forward leaps.
Jacobson, who had been six over par after 11 holes on Thursday, equalled the best score of the week, despite a bogey at the last, and his 67 moved him to 215, one under par and into the top ten early in the third round.
Harrington, meanwhile, birdied the last for a 68 to finish the day on level par 216 and not out of contention by any means as the field began to bunch on a gloriously warm, sunny Georgia afternoon.
Jacobson, a three-time winner on The European Tour International Schedule last year, admitted on Thursday that he feared he might not even beat the 85-85 posted by Swedish amateur, Christian Hardin, at the Masters in 1989.
Instead, he birdied four holes in a row during his homeward nine on Thursday and just made the cut with nothing to spare on Friday. Six birdies and a bogey propelled him through the field and he admitted: “It would be nice if I am within four shots of the lead tonight.
“I felt I had a good score in me and I just tried to shoot as low a score as possible – make some smart plays and be conservative when necessary.”
Last season Jacobson was tied fifth in the US Open Championship and tied sixth in the British equivalent in July. He added: “I feel I am starting to give myself a chance in the Majors now”.
Harrington, runner-up in The Players Championship in neighbouring Florida two weeks ago, had five birdies and a bogey in his 68 and said: “It was a good day. I finally managed to make some things happen and was pleased to get one more birdie at the last.
“The first two days were tough but being first out in the third round was a perfect opportunity to score. There is not the same pressure as going out leading.”
Germany's Alex Cejka and José Maria Olazábal of Spain, who lay in joint second overnight, shot 78 and 79 respectively for totals of 218 and 219.
Former Open Champion, Paul Lawrie of Scotland, followed up his second round 70 with a 73 fore 220, four over par, while Sergio Garcia of Spain signed for a 75 for 219, Scotland's Sandy Lyle a 75 for 221 and Ian Pouolter of England a 74 for 222.