AUGUSTA, Ga. — On one hand, Rory McIlroy liked the fact he entered this Masters somewhat under the radar. On the other hand, he desperately wanted to be part of the conversation about the world’s elite players. So he had his hands full as he began a final-group matchup with Jordan Spieth on Saturday. McIlroy played like a guy who had his hands tied behind his back.
If it really was a showdown between the two golfers, McIlroy didn’t show up. He never put any pressure on Spieth and never made a single birdie (for the first time in his past 81 major championship rounds). And still, he has a chance to win the Masters.
That is because he did have one small success Saturday, during his 5-over-par 77. He made pars on his final seven holes. That stretch allowed him to hang around and stay in position after Spieth’s mini-implosion on the final two holes. Having trailed Spieth by eight shots late in the round, he will begin the final round today at 2 over, only five strokes out of the lead.
“We’ll see what happens tomorrow,” McIlroy said as the sun was setting over Augusta National Saturday night.
Overall, Saturday was a weird day at the Masters. The cool winds were fairly strong. They were strong enough, anyway, to make the greens dry and — blasphemous as it might sound — somewhat brown and crusty. The point is, the greens here are fast and hilly and not built for windy conditions — as are the putting surfaces at, say, St. Andrews.
Tournament officials did not rescue the golfers by soaking the short grass overnight. If players had to gauge the wind before they took their putts, so be it. Maybe it was a response to Spieth’s record-tying score last year, or maybe it was the Masters’ way of answering the conundrum of the modern golf ball being too lively for traditional courses. In any event, it was a pain for just about everybody.
“To be honest with you, I would be feeling a lot worse about myself if I hadn’t have just seen what Jordan did the last two holes,” McIlroy said, referring to the bogey and double bogey that dropped Spieth from 6 under par to 3 under. “I sort of take a bit of heart from that, that I’m still in this golf tournament.”
This golf tournament means the world to McIlroy because he has won all three of the other majors and would join a select company of career Grand Slam winners with a victory on Sunday. He also saw that Spieth won two majors last year and nearly won the other two, and that Jason Day won the PGA Championship and is currently No. 1 in the world.
Put all of that together and you see why McIlroy determinedly adopted a new left-hand-low putting style this year and why he chose a more low-key businesslike approach to this week. Getting to go head-to-head with Spieth looked like a godsend.
It became a nightmare for McIlroy. His driving was poor and his putting was no better. Granted it wasn’t match play, but if you matched the two golfers’ cards, Spieth would have waxed McIlroy, 6 and 4.
“I didn’t feel like anything was off. I was just sort of playing upstream, I guess you can say. I was always trying to get something going and I just couldn’t,” McIlroy said.
His body language suggested frustration when his own putts wouldn’t fall, and a couple of Spieth’s curled in at the last instant. “I turned around after 15, I said, ‘How the hell is he 2-under par today?’ But it’s most impressive. As much as it could be annoying to his competitors, it’s very, very impressive,” the four-time major champion said. “The guys that were out there, playing that golf course today, we’re the ones who appreciate it the most.”
McIlroy said that despite the hiccup at the end by Spieth, the Masters today “is his to lose.”
If he does lose it, McIlroy intends to be in position to grab it. He won’t be as tentative. He will “freewheel it a little bit.” And he will be able to shrug off one bad Saturday if he wears a green jacket Sunday night. But if not, he will know that he lost his shot Saturday. We’ll see what happens.