Padraig Harrington scorched into contention for Masters glory when he finished with five birdies in his last six holes for superb a 68 that left him five strokes adrift of suprise leader Peter Hanson but with only five players ahead of him.
Knowing that it is easier to attack than defend on the notoriously capricious Augusta National lay-out, the 40 year old Dubliner will go into the final round in the fourth last group alongside Henrik Stenson clinging to the comforting thought that no matter what happens, he has three majors on the kitchen table at home and will contend for many more.
Four strokes behind hot favourite Phil Mickelson, the Dubliner knows he has the game and the experience to win his fourth major today if he can pull all elements of his game together again.
That’s why he is guarding against getting ahead of himself and he insisting that he would not let his ambition get the better of him in what is sure to be an emotionally fraught final day battle.
“I don’t need to go out there and prove anything tomorrow,” he said after another strong putting display confirmed his reconciliation with a putter than has misbehaved for more than a year. “I’m in a great position in that sense. I’ve won three majors. I’m going to win more majors, so I don’t have to do it tomorrow. That’s not my one and only chance; that’s not my one and only chance going forward.
“There are players out there who have not won a major who feel like, I have to take this chance because they have not come around. Having won three, I realise that they do actually come around and they will come around. And I don’t need to panic tomorrow.
“I have nothing to prove. And that’s a nice position to be in. I said it outside. You have to be very careful. Once you’ve won at majors, and certainly when I’ve discussed this with other Major winners, you have to be very careful. You’ve hit such a high in your career that you want it all the time.
“I’ve seen guys who have won multiple majors and all they want to do is win the next one. And that want sometimes can get in you. I think it has with me at times. So the key for me is to let it happen rather than going out there desperately wanting to win.”
When he finished, Harrington held the clubhouse lead with playing partner Hunter Mahan on four under par but quickly realised he could be well adrift by the finish.
“If six under is leading tonight, four under is in a great position,” he said. “If guys get to eight nine or ten I’ll need another big day tomorrow but the good news is that I had to do something today and I did it. It gives me a chance tomorrow.”
Hanson got the lead to nine under par when he carded a brilliant 65 alongside Mickelson, who was at his swashbuckling best, following nine straight pars on the front nine with a homeward run of 30 for a 66 that left him just one adrift.
The left-hander pulled off some of his trademark specials on the way home with an eagle three at the 13th and a brilliant up and down flop shot from the back of the 15th the highlights of an charge that ended with a dramatic final hole birdie.
Harrington had a similar day, playing his first 11 holes in one over par before turning on the genius tap over the last six holes.
Harrington said: “It was very nice. I hung in there well for the first 10 holes, made a bit of a slip up on the 11th and then finished nicely.
“I had chances on the 12th and 17th and birdied the other five. It’s the kind of finish you would like to have on a Sunday.
“It’s nice to do it on a Saturday because it keeps me in the tournament but you would certainly pay a lot of money for it tomorrow.”
Out in level par with bogyeys at the first and fifth erased by birdies at the second and ninth, Harrington bogeyed the 11th to slip to one over before catching fire.
His great run started when he hit the 13th in two and two-putted for birdie. At the 14th his towering second shot rolled back to just six feet and after holing that one, he hit the 15th in two and calmly two-putted for birdie to get to three under.
Just 12 feet away on the par-three 16th, he dribbled his slick birdie putt into the middle of the cup and then followed a great chip and putt par save at the 17th with a brilliant birdie from 12 feet down the hill at the last.
Searching for his first major since the 2008 US PGA and in contention for the first time at a grand slam event since he imploded with a quintuple bogey eight on the eighth hole in the final round at Hazeltine the following August, Harrington said: “I’m a different player than I was then. I think a better player.
“I’ve been happy with my game for a while now and haven’t been putting well but this week I’ve turned it around nicely.
“I can certainly go low in majors and I’ve proved that in the past. I’ve been working hard on the greens and hopefully it will show up well tomorrow and we can have a good run at this.
“If I get in the hunt I know I can make good things happen for me. I know what it takes. I will be going for a more relaxed attitude tomorrow and see what happens. I’ve won three majors already and any majors I win going forward are bonus majors.”
Harrington admits that his putting has let him down over the past year but he has no regrets about any of the changes he has made to his game since he claimed his most recent major, three and a half years ago.
“I try and get away from trying to justify anything. I am who I am. I’ve spent my whole life trying to get better; changing to get better and continually working to get better. That’s my makeup.
“If I wasn’t in contention here this week, I’d be the same person. Come Monday, you can guarantee I’ll be working on something no matter what happens tomorrow. That’s the nature of the game. You have to be trying to go forward in order to try not to go backwards.
“You might get away with a year or two, but you know, the history books are littered with guys who played well for a year or two and disappeared. It’s very, very hard to keep it going forward, and you know, my nature is to keep working at it to do that.”
Hanson is 34 but relatively inexperienced in majors. It’s just his second Masters and in 18 major appearances his best finish is a share of seventh behind Rory McIlroy in the US Open at Congressional last year.
Mickelson made sure he let the world know that there is no better feeling in golf that being in the final group at the Masters on a Sunday.
Harrington knows that Mickelson is the man to beat and he too played the experience card following his joint lowest round in 13 Masters appearances.
Assessing the challenges posed by a course that is becoming firmer and faster as each day passes, Harrington will have sent shivers down Hanson’s spine when he said:
“I think that you have to know the golf course full stop on Sunday. You’ve got to know the feelings coming down the stretch in a major. You’ve got to know the feelings coming down the stretch at the Masters, because the Masters is different. That back nine is different than any other major tournament, purely because of the risk/reward all the way home.
“There’s so many shots that you can take on, and if you hit a good shot ‑‑ like you can take on the corner on 13; if you hit it around the corner, you can be left with 6‑iron into the green and great chance of making eagle; and you hit it a little bit left, you’re teeing it up again. There’s so many risk rewards. There’s a lot more intimidation through the last nine holes and that really does take a lot of experience….
“This is the beauty of the golf course. It becomes so much harder when you’re defending something. It really is a tough golf course when you’ve got a bit of fear in you and you don’t want to make a mistake.
“Yet when you’ve got no fear in you, and you’ve nothing to lose, all of a sudden, you come whipping around the corner on 13 and it’s no problem hitting it onto the 15th green and you can go at the pin on 11 even.
“But when you’re defending something, it really does ‑‑ it’s tough out there. You’re being a little bit cautious and all of a sudden, you know, it’s a two‑shot swing against a guy who is free‑wheeling it. And that’s why I think this golf course, it really is the ultimate golf course to win on, and the toughest golf course in the game probably to maintain a lead.
“You know, we have seen leads disappear out there, and it’s so easy. In a matter of holes, you can have, you know, four‑shot swings and more.”
Destiny awaits Harrington today but knowing he has already touched the Holy Grail three times gives him a level of comfort that few will match.