AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - The early starters in Sunday’s final round at Augusta National were greeted by the coldest temperatures of the week but the calmest conditions as the 80th Masters was poised for a pulsating finish.
When American Kevin Na teed off in the first pairing of the day with a non-competing marker, the temperature hovered at around 48 degrees Fahrenheit (nine degrees Celsius) but the strong swirling winds of the first three days were no more.
The best players in the game were tested to the full for the first three rounds in gusts of up to 35 mph (56 kph) on an already challenging layout, but Sunday’s forecast called for light breezes.
Defending champion Jordan Spieth, aiming to become just the fourth player to claim back-to-back Green Jackets, holds a one-shot lead after 54 holes and is one of many compelling storylines now bubbling at the year’s opening major.
The 22-year-old Texan has held the outright lead for a record seven consecutive rounds and if he can hold on for one more day will join Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo and Jack Nicklaus as the only men to claim consecutive Masters titles.
German veteran and twice former champion Bernhard Langer, at 58, trails Spieth by two strokes in his bid to become the oldest player ever to win a major championship.
American Julius Boros was a full decade younger when he won the 1968 PGA Championship at age 48.
Hideki Matsuyama, a 24-year-old playing in his fifth Masters, also sits two shots off the pace as he strives to give Japan its first major winner.
PGA Tour rookie Smylie Kaufman, one of only four players to break par on Saturday when he shot a best-of-the-day 69, is one stroke off the lead as he seeks to become the fourth first-time participant to win the Masters.
Horton Smith won the inaugural edition in 1934, Gene Sarazen triumphed in 1935 and Fuzzy Zoeller claimed the 1979 title.
Eleven players are grouped within five shots of the lead heading into the final round, including Australian world number one Jason Day (at level par) and four-times major champion Rory McIlroy, who slid back to two over after struggling to a 77.
McIlroy, who is bidding for his first Green Jacket to complete a career grand slam of golf’s four majors, knows full well that he faces an uphill task in Sunday’s final round.
“He (Spieth) is sitting on top of the leaderboard, where he has been for basically the last three years here, so he’s going out there and it’s his to lose,” said McIlroy.
“There’s a few guys that have a chance and I feel like if I can get off to a good start, you never know.”
Editing by Steve Keating