It's McIlroy's Masters to lose
Jason Day desperately wants to be the first Australian to win the Masters, but he knows this one’s Rory McIlroy’s to lose.
“Rory, the way he's hitting the ball, he can pretty much go out there and he can shoot a couple under par I think and probably win,” the 23-year-old Australian conceded.
“A lot of guys, four shots back, so there's a lot of pressure on us to obviously go out there and score early and try and put some pressure on him so he can make some mistakes.
“But you know, he's very mentally tough.
“I think Rory is going to be a little nervous tomorrow, but the way he’s hitting it, he’s going to be very, very tough to catch.”
Day knows of what he speaks, having played alongside McIlroy for three straight days; a front-row seat to one of the great ball-striking exhibitions in Masters history.
Long, bombed drives followed by high, accurate irons that land softly and a deft touch around the greens is hard to beat around Augusta National.
As he was on Friday, McIlroy again wasn’t deadly on the greens, but in truth he didn’t need to be.
It seems he’s heeded well the advice given to him recently by Jack Nicklaus.
The Golden Bear told the 21-year-old prodigy that majors are often won not by brilliance, but by avoiding mistakes, sidestepping landmines and staying patient while others implode, then capitalizing on opportunities.
Nicklaus certainly won a few with that blueprint - as did Tiger Woods - and McIlroy’s employing it as he seeks to become the first wire-to-wire winner of a green jacket since Raymond Floyd in 1976.
In a sense, McIlroy’s Saturday round might have been his best.
Certainly his opening 65 was more spectacular, but on Saturday he showed an aplomb and cool-headedness beyond his years.
He didn’t panic when Day briefly took a one-shot lead after the fifth hole, didn’t try to do anything heroic when he fell to 1 over par for the day after a bogey at the 10th; just stayed the course and took his chances when they came.
He birdied the two easy par 5s on the back - hitting both greens in two shots with irons - and got a bonus when a 35-footer fell on 17.
His closest pursuers, four shots behind, are Day, past champion Angel Cabrera, K.J. Choi and the impressive young South African Charl Schwartzel.
Behind them are Adam Scott and Luke Donald, both at 7 under par, with the highest American on the leader board Bo Van Pelt at 6 under.
He had a Saturday to forget.
One that served to remind again just how long it’s been since he’s been able to put together good back-to-back rounds.
After the promise of the final 11 holes on Friday, Woods stumbled to a sloppy 2-over-par 74, falling seven shots back of McIlroy‘s lead.
Though he hasn’t given up - he replied “Absolutely,” as only he can, when asked if he could still win - Woods knows he’ll be relying on train wrecks ahead of him if he’s to somehow snatch a fifth Masters title.
Train wrecks and the co-operation of his putter, which again let him down on Saturday.
He didn’t really hit the ball appreciably better or worse than he had in shooting 66 the day before, but the story of his day is told in putts: 26 on Friday, 33 on Saturday.
“I had two three-putts in there and then I hit just a lot of beautiful putts that didn’t go in,” he later bemoaned.
The motif of his day was set early.
“Right from the get-go,” he said, forlornly. “I piped a 3-wood (on the first) and it ended up right in a divot. Not only in a divot, but it settled down in a divot.”
Other players used to privately complain that Woods, in his prime, always got the good breaks.
His par putt on the opening hole lipped out. On a steamy afternoon, it was a start that visibly deflated him.
The par on two was particularly galling as Woods’ second shot, a fairway metal, landed by the pin of the par 5.
But the greens have hardened and his ball scampered into a swale over the back of the green and from there the best he could do with a chip was 8 feet.
He lipped that one out, too.
“It was a tough start and again, just a lot of patience,” he said.
The truth is that he also did himself in: he missed a gimme, barely 2 feet, on the 11th for par, three-putted the 15th for par after a heroic second shot over the water, and failed to get up-and-down on the eighth for birdie.
And let’s not even talk about the bogey on the last after he split the fairway with his tee shot.
It shouldn’t be overlooked, however, that McIlroy took 32 putts on Saturday, just one fewer than Woods, yet beat him by four.
McIlroy hasn’t always been automatic on Sundays. He held a share of the lead earlier this year in Dubai and barely finished inside the top 10. He’s had other stumbles on the European Tour.
But the kid’s got that look in his eye.
“I've been saying it all week: I feel comfortable, comfortable with my game, comfortable with the way I've prepared, and all of a sudden I'm finally feeling comfortable on this golf course,” he said.
“A combination like that, you know, you're going to feel pretty good.”