AUGUSTA, Ga. — Saturday morning at the Masters inevitably brings about a nauseating amount of references to it being “moving day,” a cliché used so often it got us thinking: Is it really? The answer depends on your definition of the phrase. “Moving day” conjures up images of a big-time rally, storming past several names on the leader board with a magical round that lifts one from the back of the pack to the top of the leader board. The reality, though, is that it’s usually more benign than that—although no less effective or meaningful. The average position of eventual champions after 36 holes is 3.95, with it improving to 2.28 after 54 holes. The average third-round score of eventual winners is 70.19, and the average number of strokes picked up on the lead (or having the lead increase) is 1.16 strokes.
On the surface, that’s not much movement. Twelve times the eventual champion has actually lost ground in terms of strokes to the field in the third round, with Byron Nelson (seven in 1937), Nicklaus (six in 1975), Weir (six in 2003) and Faldo (five in 1989) dropping the most. Nineteen players neither gained nor lost strokes. Another 12 picked up a single shot. That means that in more than half the Masters played (43 of 80), the eventual champion picked up no more than one shot on the lead during the third round. Still, where moving day gets its cache are the memorable charges that become part of Masters lore. Tiger Woods went from three shots in arrears to six clear of the field with his third-round 65 in 2005 (played over two days). Phil Mickelson only shot 70 in the third round a year later, but it took him from a tie for fifth, four off the pace, to sole possession of the lead by a stroke.
Then there were those who came from nowhere to get back in the hunt. Gary Player’s third-round 66 in 1974 took him from T-16 to T-2. Bernhard Langer used a 68 in 1985 to go from T-25 to T-3. And while Art Wall Jr. gained no ground in terms of strokes, his solid 71 in 1959 moved him from T-21 to T-13, just close enough to where his final-round 66 could leap frog that group to the title.
In all, 20 champions—25 percent of the Masters winners—went into the third round chasing the leaders and entered the final round with at least a piece of the lead if not holding it outright. Conversely, only twice in Masters history has a player not held the 36-hole lead, lost both field position and strokes to the lead in the third round and gone on to win (Gay Brewer, 1967, and Bubba Watson, 2012). And what of those eventual champions who have gone into the third round holding the lead? A second-round leader/ co-leader has remained in that spot 25 times after 54 holes. Of those, 12 enhanced their position, 10 neither gained nor lost strokes to the lead and only three saw their leads dwindle. Of those gaining ground, some simply put the hammer down. Nicklaus was tied for the lead in 1965 after 36 holes, but a third-round 64 gave him sole possession, five shots ahead of the pack. And Tiger Woods’ third-round 65 in 1997 boosted his lead from three shots to an insurmountable nine. Now that’s moving.