Rose and Mickelson set-up thrilling Masters showdown as McIlroy is paired with Tiger for pursuit of Spieth
For 16 holes of his Masters third round, Rory McIlroy dared to dream. Then a pair of bogey fives at Augusta National’s 16th and 18th holes shredded his hopes of donning the Green Jacket and, this weekend at least, completing his Career Grand Slam.
“Basically, I’m going to need something around 61 or 62 tomorrow to have a real chance. I’m not sure that’s going to happen but we’ll see,” the 25-year-old sighed moments after signing for his 68 that left him tied sixth on six-under.
A couple of hours later, after Spieth had trundled to 16-under on the back of a 70, even those forlorn words from McIlroy appeared fanciful.
Instead, the sturdy Texan today is favoured to become the first wire-to-wire winner at The Masters since Ray Floyd back in 1976.
Already this week, 21-year-old Texan has shown a penchant for making history, having broken by one both the 36-hole record (14-under) formerly held by Floyd since ’76 and then the 54-hole low, shared by Floyd and Tiger Woods (1997).
Ironically, McIlroy’s round was his best in four years at Augusta and for a long way it really looked as if the World No 1 may go bogey-free at the Masters for the first time since his career-best 65 on Thursday in 2011.
Then he faltered at 16, failing to hole from seven feet for par after playing a deft flop-shot from the rough on the wrong side of the right greenside bunker.
After doing well to get down in two from 50 feet for his four at 17, McIlroy squirted his drive at 18 into a fairway bunker and when his towering 7-iron came down on the false front of the green and rolled back off and he failed to save par from the fringe.
The Saturday afternoon heroics came instead from England’s 2012 US Open Champion Justin Rose and American icon Phil Mickelson, both of whom deserve immense credit for making a true contest out of the 2015 Masters with thrilling 67’s.
The climax to Rose’s third round was the polar opposite of McIlroy’s. The 34-year-old holed-out brilliantly for his fourth birdie in a row from a greenside trap at 16, then drained a 20 foot downhill putt for a closing birdie to lie four behind Spieth in solo-second on 12-under.
Patrons at the par three 16th certainly got value for their money. Three-times Masters champion Mickelson, at 44 more than twice Spieth’s age, stoked the biggest roar of the tournament there when he holed a monster 41 foot putt for his sixth birdie of the day.
Coming moments after the Texan had three-putted from 25-feet for bogey at 14, this resounding effort threw down the gauntlet to Spieth.
The soundwaves washed over Spieth as he walked up the 15th fairway after his tee shot but if the 21-year-old was in any way perturbed, he didn’t show it, hitting a courageous long-iron on his way to a two-putt birdie, followed by a world class wedge to 15 feet for another at 16.
The strain on Spieth only told at the next, where he drove into the trees on the left, pitched out well short of the green, hit an iffy-chip and then took his third three-putt of the day for a double-bogey six.
Still, the sturdy 21-year-old kept his composure well, bravely saving par at 18 after carving his approach into the gallery right of the green, holing-out from nine feet.
Mickelson, meanwhile, dropped a shot at 17 to slip back into third on 11-under but his knowledge of Augusta and the support of an adoring home crowd make Lefty a real threat.
Spieth leads by the same margin enjoyed by a 21-year-old McIlroy in 2011 before the Irishman’s infamous Sunday meltdown.
Yet as McIlroy has pointed out, Spieth is a “more rounded” golfer than he was four years ago, especially after sleeping on the 54-hole lead at last year’s Masters before Bubba Watson grabbed the Green Jacket for the second time in three years.
“I think the good thing for Jordan is he's already experienced it once,” said McIlroy. “He's played in the final group at the Masters before. It didn't quite happen for him last year, but he'll have learned from that experience.
“I think all that put together, he'll definitely handle it a lot better than I did,” added the Ulsterman.
His hopes of winning The Masters might have been dashed but McIlroy’s morale and confidence remain high and he plainly relishes the challenge posed by Spieth.
Asked if he felt his breath on his neck, McIlroy said: “No, not really. I just have to worry about myself and try and play the best that I can. I know if I do that, then that No. 1 position is pretty safe.
“Yeah, he's obviously been playing great golf since taking a couple of wins at the end of last year; winning again at The Valspar and being in contention basically, every time he plays … but I know I have the capability to do the same thing.”
McIlroy was delighted to play Augusta’s miserly front nine in four-under par, eight strokes better than Friday’s calamitous outward 40.
Had McIlroy matched or gone close to his second round 31 on the way home, he’d be starting the final round in a tie for third with Charley Hoffman on 10-under. Despite Rose playing it in 31, many of the pins on the back nine yesterday were treacherous.
Typically, Tiger Woods, who goes into the final round 10-behind in a five-way tie for fifth with McIlroy, Kevin Na, Dustin Johnson and Kevin Streelman, after a relatively impressive 68, sounded a note of defiance.
“Right now he's at 16 so I'm going to have to put together a really special round of golf tomorrow,” Woods warned. “You just never know. You saw what happened in '96 (Greg Norman lost a six-shot lead to Nick Faldo). You saw what happened with Rory in '11. You never know around this golf course!”
In Tiger’s defence, Charl Schwartzel was 10 behind McIlroy going into the final round four years ago.
Yet as Rory himself admits, Jordan Spieth, if not as outrageously gifted a golfer as the Ulsterman, he’s tougher mentally and more experiences at 21 than McIlroy.
A third round 76 left Graeme McDowell tied 51st on four-over with Ryder Cup teammate Jamie Donaldson, while Europe's captain for 2016, Darren Clarke, was one back in 53rd after a 77.