Saturday 18 January 2020

Speith weathers the storm to retain his Masters lead

Bryson DeChambeau ran up a crushing triple-bogey on the final hole of his second round Photo: USA Today Sports
Bryson DeChambeau ran up a crushing triple-bogey on the final hole of his second round Photo: USA Today Sports

Dermot Gilleece

Jordan Spieth confirmed his status as the golfing wonder of the age, by leading the 80th US Masters for a record seventh successive round, at Augusta National. A 73 characterised by brilliance, trial and error, left the defending champion on three under par overall and just one stroke clear of his closest challenger.

With menace to match its majesty, a celebrated venue took a serious toll on the two Irish challengers, as Rory McIlroy failed to card even one birdie in a thoroughly dispiriting 77. And ahead of him, Shane Lowry was in trouble from the outset, en route to a 79.

It also proved to be a memorable occasion at the other end of the age spectrum. By way of taking up the baton for his generation after Friday's farewell by Tom Watson, Bernhard Langer defied his 58 years with a remarkable 70, completed by a typically resourceful bogey on the last.

"Experience certainly helps around here, but I played nicely," he said with classic understatement of a round which included two three-putts and a chip-in birdie on the 14th.

As it happened, McIlroy handled the greens well enough, remembering no doubt the advice he received last Monday from blade-master Ben Crenshaw, who urged him to "take the top line" on difficult breaks. But his driving was unusually wayward, leading to bunkers on the second, third and eighth where, significantly, Spieth outscored him in each case.

And having declared that he felt Augusta owed him something, his journey from there on contained few bright spots to balance plenty of grief, including a double-bogey six at the 11th where he was in water, left of the green.

Winds gusting over 30mph made for seriously testing conditions early on, while ensuring that parched greens delivered a course set-up suitably treacherous for a Masters weekend. The later starters were more fortunate in that the wind had abated markedly when they headed for Amen Corner.

"They're difficult greens that you can't attack," said three-time champion Nick Faldo. "If you have ideas about holing a 20-footer, you've got to be careful, otherwise you could go six to eight feet past."

Reflecting on 1996, Faldo reckoned that playing in the final pairing with Greg Norman was crucial to his hopes of turning over a six-shot deficit. McIlroy took a similar view of his battle with Spieth, though in his case, the gap was only one entering yesterday's round.

And unlike the Shark of 20 years ago, Spieth was not about to be intimidated, subscribing no doubt to the well-worn dictum of Willie Park Jnr, that a good putter is a match for anyone.

Meanwhile, Langer gave a valuable lesson to the young 'uns, including his playing partner, Jason Day. With a pitch to four feet for a birdie four at the long eighth, the irrepressible German had the effrontery to be one under par for the tournament and placed third on the leaderboard.

Given that he was conceding as much as 30 yards off the tee to the longer hitters, his ability to remain in touch, was testament to superb course management. And a fine return from his trusty broomhandle, held away from his chest to comply with the "anchor" rule, included successive birdies at the 13th 14th and 15th, when we imagined he might begin to tire.

After a chastening 76 on Friday, Lowry badly needed a solid start yesterday to settle the nerves, but it didn't happen. In fact he had the crushing set-back of bogeys on the first four holes to slip back to four-over for the tournament.

You could almost sense a sigh of relief when two putts delivered a par on the fifth, but there was to be little joy in the remainder of his day as he painfully proceeded in the wrong direction.

Problems on the greens became almost an inevitable consequence of scrappy approach play. And faced with such a searching examination, each error ate relentlessly at increasingly fragile confidence.

His playing partner, Bryson DeChambeau, who will make his professional debut in Harbour Town later this week, did considerably better, despite a wretched finish to his second round on Friday when he seemed set to break 70. That was until the 18th, where the US Amateur champion ran up a triple-bogey seven after ruinously hooking two drives into trees.

All of which was a reminder of how impressively Paul Dunne performed when, under comparable pressure, he was tied for the lead after 54 holes of the Open Championship at St Andrews last July.

Tournament golf is a cruelly demanding mistress, and the exceptional nature of the Augusta challenge in testing winds, was perhaps best summed up by one of the game's great mavericks, Mac O'Grady, a three-time Masters competitor.

"It's like a black widow," he asserted in typically colourful language. "It seduces you, entices you, romances you and then it stings you, killing you emotionally." Lowry would understand what he meant.

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