Thursday 27 October 2016

Big guns finally set their sights on Speith


Published 12/04/2015 | 02:30

Jordan Spieth celebrates a birdie on the 13th hole
Jordan Spieth celebrates a birdie on the 13th hole

When the assault came on runwaway leader Jordan Spieth, it was mounted by challengers of serious quality in the third round of the 79th US Masters at Augusta National yesterday. Among them was Rory McIlroy who built impressively on the sparkling lift of an eagle-three at the long second.

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A three-pronged assault from challengers of serious quality, failed to ruffle an admirably composed Jordan Spieth, in the third round of the 79 US Masters at Augusta National yesterday. The 21-year-old Texan retained the lead on -16 after another day of hot scoring under a bright Georgia sun.

Rory McIlroy launched his anticipated charge with an eagle at the long second. And with birdies on the second, third and fourth, Phil Mickelson and a revitalised Tiger Woods, joined him in a surge up the leaderboard.

Suddenly a seemingly unbridgeable lead became a lot less daunting. Indeed the chance of catching Spieth was rendered realistic, art least temporarily, by surprisingly good scoring conditions for a third successive day, courtesy of overnight rain.

Now, it became a matter of what the pacesetter could do to defend his position on a course where it is often claimed that a lead is impossible to defend, as Greg Norman could testify. The best tactic is to press on regardless - and to his great credit, this is what Spieth set about doing.

Still, even when sinking a nine-footer for a birdie-four at the long second, an awareness of what McIlroy was doing some holes ahead in an outward 32, couldn't have done much for his competitive comfort. Nor could rather untidy bogeys at the fourth and seventh, which killed the boost of birdies at the second and sixth.

For his part, the Holywood star would have been acutely conscious of events far from Augusta National when he set off in pursuit. These were memories of The Australian GC in Sydney where he went last November as the defending champion and departed the scene having relinquished his Australian Open title to Spieth.

Most significant was the fact that Spieth stormed to victory with a closing 63 which left him no fewer than 15 strokes clear of McIlroy in a share of 15th place.

Now, almost five months on, he had to hope that the leader would make mistakes, though they would be of little avail unless he also helped himself. And he made a fine start by holing a 40-footer for an improbable eagle-three at the second. Then, after five solid pars, he proceeded to birdie the eighth and ninth.

This was McIlroy at the peak of his powers, driving the ball magnificently and giving himself repeated birdie chances by the majesty of his iron play. And further birdies came at the long 13th and 15th which he had painfully failed to exploit 12 months ago. Then, at eight under for the tournament, he made his first serious slip.

From a surprisingly loose tee-shot at the short 16th, he missed the green and failed to get up and down, so carding his first bogey of the round. And he made another mistake at the 18th by driving into the first of the fairway bunkers on the left. And though he later played a good pitch from short of the green, his six-foot par putt slipped past the target, forcing him to settle for a closing bogey in a round of 68.

Meanwhile, Mickelson maintained the pressure and when he, too, reached the turn in 32, which closed the gap on Spieth to only four strokes. And Woods did likewise, making a nonsense of recent horror stories about the state of his game. Yet in the face of all this pressure, Spieth retained the composure which is such a key element of his demeanour.

Towards the wrong end of the order, Graeme McDowell had yet another struggle on a course he greatly admires but believes he lacks the game to master, largely because of his moderate length. It made for a tough mental battle as he bogeyed the ninth for an outward 38 and three over par for the tournament.

From there, a two on the short 16th was McDowell's lone birdie on the homeward journey and this was followed by bogeys at the last two for a round of 75.

Given dispiriting form in recent years, Darren Clarke performed admirably in simply making the cut. And any further progress was decisively scuppered by a run of three birdies from the seventh which brought him to the turn in 40.

From there, his play remained patchy on a homeward journey which contained birdies on the 15th and 16th en route to a 77. More importantly, his presence allowed him to make useful contacts with prospective team members in his capacity as Europe's Ryder Cup captain for Hazeltine National next year.

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