Monday 19 March 2018

McIlroy in twilight zone as Jimenez and Spieth bid to make history at wide open Masters

Rory McIlroy was outscored by his marker in the first group out. Photo: Getty Images
Rory McIlroy was outscored by his marker in the first group out. Photo: Getty Images
Rory McIlroy shakes hands with marker Jeff Knox on the 18th green during yesterday's third round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club
Bubba Watson feels the heat during yesterday’s third round. Reuters
Bubba Watson removes his hat after finishing his play in the third round of the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. Reuters
Bubba Watson reacts after his ball stopped short of a birdie putt on the 12th green. Photo: AP
Jordan Spieth waits to play his tee shot on the fourth hole during the third round of the 2014 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 12, 2014 in Augusta, Georgia. Photo: Getty Images
Jordan Spieth watches his tee shot on the fourth hole during the third round of the 2014 Masters Tournament at Augusta. Photo: Getty Images
Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain waits in the 14th fairway during the third round of the 2014 Masters Tournament at Augusta. Photo: Getty Images
Marker Jeff Knox and Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland walk to the 18th green during the third round of the 2014 Masters Tournament at Augusta
U.S. golfer Bubba Watson hits his tee shot on the fifth hole during the third round of the Masters golf tournament

Karl MacGinty in Augusta

RORY McILROY could only ponder on what might have been as Bubba Watson wobbled into the final round of the Masters tied at the head of the field with Jordan Spieth, just 20 and bidding to become the youngest-ever winner at Augusta.

Also prominent among 13 players crowded within four shots of the lead after 54 holes is ageless Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, 50, who boosted his hopes of becoming the oldest Major-winner in history with a superlative third round 66, the lowest at this year’s tournament.

We were promised one of the most wide-open and unpredictable Masters of all time, especially in the absence of the injured Tiger Woods, and that’s precisely how it panned out in modern history in the absence of injured Tiger Woods and that’s precisely how it panned out.

With just three Major Championship-winners, Watson, Jim Furyk and 54-year-old Masters specialist Freddie Couples and US Open title-holder Justin Rose among those 13 players under-par, it truly is anybody’s guess who will leave Augusta this evening wearing the Green Jacket.

Had McIlroy managed to find his scoring touch with the putter in the third round, he might easily have thrust himself right into contention. Instead, he was outscored by his marker in the first group out yesterday, 51-year-old amateur Jeff Knox, Augusta National’s club champion.

Knox put his local knowledge to such splendid use around and on Augusta’s often confounding greens that had it been match play, he’d have beaten World No 9 McIlroy by 4 and 3.

The businessman played so blindingly well, his ‘70’ (Knox putt-out from inches for his par at five) was better than all but five of the 51 Masters survivors in action yesterday, while McIlroy was one of only a dozen to break par.

So it’s stretching it to say the Northern Irishman was embarrassed. Indeed, he seemed encouraged after making three birdies the final four holes of the third round 71 which left him tied 23rd on three-over.

McIlroy was eight behind the leaders entering the final day, too far back to offer the 24-year-old any prospect of winning the Masters, though he can reasonably be expected to beat his previous best at Augusta, a rather modest share of 15th place on his first appearance at this event in 2009.

“That really isn’t anything to shout about,” the Holywood native admitted. “Still, it would be nice to play well, shoot something in mid-to-high 60’s and maybe finish the week in red figures.

“Jeff is a great player,” added McIlroy, complimenting Knox. “I thought he was going to be nice and three-putt the last so we’d halve it but he beat me by one. He obviously knows this place very well and gets it around nicely.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone putt the greens around here as well as he does. He was so impressive, I was thinking of getting him to read some of my putts out there.”

Solving the riddles of Augusta’s greens so far has been McIlroy’s biggest problem as he racked up 95 putts in 54 holes, 12 more than Senor Jimenez.

The redoubtable Spaniard shares fifth with young American Rickie Fowler on three-under, two behind 1992 Masters-winner Watson and Augusta first-timer Spieth and one shy of Matt Kuchar and another impressive Masters rookie, Sweden’s Jonas Blixt.

Lee Westwood, 40, once again eased himself into contention with a second round 70. He’s tied seventh on two-under with Furyk (72) and another European veteran seeking his maiden Major title, 43-year-old Dane Thomas Bjorn, who dropped three shots and out of a share of the lead on the final six holes of his 73.

After bursting four clear of the field with blistering rounds of 69 and 68, Watson, 35, looked a little jittery during his third round 74.

After a bogey-eagle start, the gifted but erratic American dropped three more shots on the way to the turn. Watson should have been settled by a sweet birdie at 10 but his third three-putt of the day allowed 2013 Rookie-of-the- Year Spieth take a share of the lead.

The young but rock-solid Texan, who won the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic and made the US Presidents Cup team in his first season as a pro, admitted he surprised even himself with his composure during a third round 70 which featured back-to-back birdies at 14 and 15.

Spieth is bidding to become the youngest Major-winner since 20-year-old Tom Creasy landed the 1931 US PGA.

Yet Jimenez is within 18 holes of becoming the eldest Major-winner in history, while victory today will ensure he achieves his primary objective in 2014 and make his fifth Ryder Cup appearance on Paul McGinley’s team at Gleneagles, in the process becoming the oldest man to represent Europe.

The most recent of his eight top-10 finishes at golf’s Majors came at the 2012 Open but time or age means nothing to the universally popular man from Malaga.

“Because you are 50, it doesn't mean that you cannot play well,” insisted Jimenez, who chalked up his 20th European Tour victory in Hong Kong last December.

“I'm still moving.  I'm still flexible.  I hit the ball longer than I ever have, though I'm just a medium hitter.  I still shape my irons, when I want to play fade or draw, high or low, it happens.  I'm competitive, you know,” concluded the Spaniard,  counts eight top-10 .”

Defending Masters champion Adam Scott slipped to one-over and out of contention with a third round 76.

Darren Clarke, back to five-over after a 73, plays today’s final round with Jose Maria Olazabal (16.40 Irish time), while McIlroy tees it up with Jimmy Walker, a three-times PGA Tour winner this season (17.40 Irish).

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