AUGUSTA, Ga. — The kid stayed cool on a sweltering day at Augusta National, and now Rory McIlroy has a comfortable lead heading into the final round of the Masters.
The 21-year-old from Northern Ireland shot a 2-under 70 on Saturday, punctuated by a 33-foot putt at the 17th hole that suddenly gave him plenty of breathing room.
He was at 12-under 204 through three rounds, having held at least a share of the lead each day. He had his biggest advantage yet going into Sunday, four strokes clear of the field as challengers like Tiger Woods, Jason Day and K.J. Choi failed to put on the pressure.
“It’s a great position to be in,” McIlroy said. “I stayed really patient out there (Saturday). I’m really happy with way I stuck to my game plan and it paid off.”
Davis High graduate Nick Watney was on the other end of the leaderboard as he is at 3-over 219 after three rounds. Watney made the cut by shooting even par on each of the first two days, but after a 75 on Saturday, only Ernie Els (+5 overall) and Kyung-Tae Kim (+7) are behind the former Blue Devil section champion.
But it was Woods who was dropping expletives and screaming at himself. He followed up a brilliant 66 on Friday with a sloppy 74, staggering to the scoring shed after missing a 5-footer to save par at the final hole.
While there were some wild shots with his big clubs — he had to crouch down at No. 17 after driving under a pine tree — his biggest woes came on the greens he knows so well.
The miss at No. 18 was bad enough, but hardly his worst. There was a 2-footer that lipped out at the 11th. And a 3-footer that skidded wide at the 15th, ruining a birdie after he struck a brilliant hook around the towering pines.
“I just made nothing,” Woods moaned. “I hit so many putts early that looked like they were going to go in and they didn’t go in.”
Mired in the longest winless streak of his career, he went from three shots behind at the start of the round to a daunting seven-shot deficit heading into Sunday.
“I’m going to have to put together a good front nine and see what happens,” he said. “I hit the ball well all day. That wasn’t the problem. I just made nothing. Take away the two three-putts there, a couple of unforced errors and it should have been a pretty good round.”
Day, another of golf’s young stars, played in the final group with McIlroy. The 23-year-old Aussie briefly surged to the top of the board with three birdies on the first five holes.
But he cooled off as the temperature soared, climbing into the mid-80s with humidity that made it feel like a summer day.
Day was shaky with his short stick, making a couple of three-putt bogeys. He made another bogey at the par-5 13th — a hole that’s expected to be at least a birdie — by flubbing a chip that rolled right back to his feet.
But at least he’s still in the mix. Day finished with a 72 and is in the group at 208 with Angel Cabrera, Charl Schwartzel and Choi.
Woods looked like the Tiger of old Friday, but any momentum quickly faded when he drove into a fairway divot at the first hole, a tough break that led to the first of four bogeys. He also made a mess of the fourth hole, dropping his club as though it was on fire after whizzing his tee shot far right of the green on the par 3.
McIlroy plodded through the first 12 holes at 1 over but closed with a flourish. He came to the 13th tied with Day, but left with a two-stroke lead after making the expected birdie. He made another at the par-5 15th, hooking his second shot over the pond and skipping it safely to a stop on the green.
Then, a big boost at the end of the day — the putt at 17 that brought out a furious fist pump.
“I’ve been saying it all week, I feel comfortable,” he said. “I feel comfortable with my game, feel comfortable with the way I’ve prepared and all of a sudden I’m feeling comfortable on this golf course.”
K.J. Choi, who played with Woods in the next-to-last group, struggled with the putter and settled for a 71.
The biggest shakers on moving day were the guys who started farther back, sweating their way through rounds in the 60s even as the heat firmed up the already slick greens. It was expected to be even steamier Sunday, with the mercury pushing into the 90s.
Cabrera, a two-time major champion who hadn’t done much since his 2009 Masters triumph, turned in a 67. Schwartzel shot 68. Adam Scott, Bo Van Pelt and Bubba Watson also shoved their way into some semblance of contention.
Scott was at 209 after a 67. Van Pelt shot 68, leaving him another stroke back. Watson, who lost in a playoff at last year’s PGA Championship and got off to a rough start at the Masters, was at 210 after posting his best round yet, an early 67 that finished up not long after the leaders were teeing off.
But those rallying from behind didn’t include defending champion Phil Mickelson. He was nine strokes back after muddling through a 71, failing to get hot after two early birdies.
It’s been that kind of week for Lefty, who’s yet to post a score in the 60s.