AUGUSTA, Ga. — Leading the Masters but with all sorts of big names behind him, Charley Hoffman finally seemed to sense the enormity of his position late Saturday afternoon.
When his ball splashed into the pond at No. 16, the advantage was gone.
“Wow,” Hoffman mouthed on the tee box.
The 40-year-old American, once known for an unruly blond mullet but all cleaned up these days, squandered a chance to play in the final group at Augusta National with a series of errant shots coming down the stretch.
Now, he’ll have to make up some ground on Sunday to capture a green jacket and his first major title.
The deficit — two shots — isn’t all that daunting.
But the players ahead of him certainly are.
Justin Rose. Sergio Garcia. Rickie Fowler. Jordan Spieth.
Hoffman preferred to focus on the positive.
“The swing on 16, it happens. It was a bad one,” he said. “But I’m happy. I’m two back. I’ve been playing good golf and I’m really happy with where I’m at.”
It could’ve been a lot better.
Hoffman was at 7 under when he rolled in an 8-foot birdie putt at No. 13, looking very much like he would defy those who expected the journeyman player to melt away under the glare of an Augusta weekend.
Then, suddenly, it all fell apart.
An errant tee shot at the 14th wound up on the pine straw right of the fairway, his view of the green obstructed by several trees. His approach skidded through the green, not bad under the circumstances and leaving him an up-and-down from 45 feet. But the pitch was a poor one, racing 16 feet past the flag and leading to a bogey.
Heading to the par-5 15th, traditionally the easiest hole on the course, Hoffman had a prime chance to get that stroke back. But a wild second shot sprayed the patrons to the right of the green, leaving a treacherous third shot over a bunker. With no way to get it close, Hoffman played it safe and wound up with a two-putt par from 20 feet.
The next swing is the one he’d really like to have back.
With the flag tucked in the back right of the 16th green, Hoffman sent one soaring off to the left. It never had a chance, popping the calm water to set up a double-bogey 5.
Just like that, Hoffman’s name slipped off the top line of the leaderboard — a spot he had commandeered with a brilliant 7-under 65 in treacherous winds on Thursday, giving him a four-shot cushion and biggest lead after the first round of the Masters since 1955.
In a second round accompanied by more swirling gusts, Hoffman soared to a 75. But he was still in a four-way tie for the lead, and it looked as though he had regained his form when he birdied two of the first four holes Saturday.
Still out front, Hoffman navigated Amen Corner without any major problems.
But those closing holes were a struggle.
“Everybody knows with this back nine, anything can happen,” Hoffman said. “You can make birdies, eagles, bogeys.”
At least he gave himself some positive vibes to sleep on with a tricky two-putt par save from 60 feet at the 18th hole, recovering from an approach shot that dropped on the fringe about pin high but caught a little ridge, sending it tumbling back down to the front tier of the green.
Hoffman finished the round with a 72, not quite the move he was hoping for on Moving Day.
“I’ve been in the lead for 36 holes and more than that, almost all of today,” he said, still smiling after the third round. “I’m playing good golf. If I play my game tomorrow, I think I’ve got a good chance.”