AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — An eclectic mix of challengers will take aim at Dustin Johnson in the final round of the Masters.
They hail from Mexico and South Korea, Australia and South Africa. Two of them are Masters rookies. Another is playing on the weekend at Augusta National for the first time. None of them has a lot of experience at this sort of thing.
Murderers’ Row, they’re not.
Mexico’s Abraham Ancer, South Korea’s Sungjae Im and Australia’s Cameron Smith were at 12-under 204 through 54 holes, four shots behind Johnson’s pace-setting score.
South Africa’s Dylan Frittelli was another shot back.
Ancer and Im are playing the Masters for the first time, which doesn’t bode well for their chances. Other than the first two tournaments in the 1930s, Fuzzy Zoeller is the only player to win the green jacket on his first try — and that was 41 years ago.
Frittelli is just a notch above a rookie. His only previous Masters appearance was in 2018, when he shot 77-74 to miss the cut.
Smith is a bit more qualified. This is his fourth Masters, and he did tie for fifth in 2018. But he was hardly a contender, going to the final round 11 shots off the lead. He moved up the leaderboard with a closing 66 that still left him six strokes behind winner Patrick Reed.
Smith is closer to the leader this time.
He likely needs another 66 to have any chance of claiming the green jacket.
“It’s what we dream about, really,” the 27-year-old Aussie said. “We’ll obviously need a hot start tomorrow, and then the back nine has been kind to me all week, so hopefully it can be kind to me one more day.”
Certainly, there’s more pressure on Johnson than there is on his pursuers.
He’s the one with the commanding lead.
He’s the one who had at least a share of the 54-hole lead in four majors — and didn’t win any of them.
“Anyone with a four-shot lead is expected to win,” Smith said. “There’s going to be plenty of boys firing tomorrow.”
Johnson isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I have a lot of good players around me,” he said. “I still need to play aggressive when I can, and play smart when I can’t.”
If Johnson, the world’s top-ranked player, puts together a final round that’s anything close to his first three rounds, it will be hard for anyone to catch him — no matter their resumes, or lack thereof.
Johnson has broken par in every round, including a pair of 7-under 65s. He hasn’t made a bogey in 30 holes.
“I think he’s right where he wants to be, obviously,” the 29-year-old Ancer said. “We know that we have to go low, and that’s it. It’s very simple. We have to just make a lot of birdies. I mean, if DJ goes out there and plays really solid like today, it’s going to be pretty much impossible to catch him.”
Ancer, Im and Smith do have some experience on a big stage.
Last December, all were first-timers at the Presidents Cup in Melbourne. They turned out to be the best players for the International team.
Im and Smith both have wins this year on the PGA Tour. The 22-year-old South Korean won the Honda Classic in Florida two weeks before the pandemic stoppage, while Smith captured the Sony Open in Hawaii.
Im may be a Masters rookie — he had never played the course until Monday’s practice round — but he feels like he knows the place.
“I watched the Masters growing up so many times that I feel like I’m used to playing this course,” Im said through a translator. “I know the course kind of suits not only me but many of the Korean players, as well, so I think that’s been why I’ve been able to maintain good scores.”
Frittelli claimed his lone PGA Tour victory at the 2019 John Deere Classic. Ancer is winless on the tour, but he did triumph in the Australian Open at the end of 2018.
So, while they may not be household names, they do have some experience with winning.
Frittelli has something else going for him.
“I just had clarity,” the 30-year-old said. “I think my mind was pretty clear. Felt confident, felt calm. Didn’t really feel any nerves, I guess.
“If I can feel that way tomorrow on the tee and on the golf course, I think I like my chances.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry