Rory McIlroy kissed the Masters goodbye when he had bad day off the tee and an even worse day on the greens to slip 10 shots behind shock leader Peter Hanson at a sun-kissed Augusta National.
The world No 2 three-putted three times en route to a 77 that left him hugging playing partner Sergio Garcia (75) and talking about yet another nightmare nine-hole run instead of a glorious title charge.
“We were both needed a hug,” said McIlroy of his bromance with the Spaniard. No wonder. He was six over after his first eight holes as he went out in 42. Almost 12 months after coming home in 43 en route to a final round 80 last year, he was almost grateful that it was only the third round.
“Seems like every year I come here I throw a bad nine holes out there. 42 today wasn’t a great effort. But the good thing is it wasn’t on the last day. I can go out there tomorrow [he’s paired with pal Graeme McDowell], try and shoot a good score, try and finish well, get a top 10 or a top 5 or whatever if I can shoot a really good one and at least leave here in a positive frame of mind.”
After opening with a damaging double bogey at the first for the second time this week, the US Open champion bogeyed the fifth and then three putted the seventh from four feet for double bogey before dropping another shot at the eighth.
He said: “I knew it wasn’t going to be my day when I missed that putt on the seventh and then didn’t birdie the eighth. If I had gone out in two over it wouldn’t have been disastrous but seven was the turning point for me.”
Trying the look on the bright side as he joked with Garcia afterwards, McIlroy added: “If you can’t laugh at yourself, what can you laugh at. It was good to have this guy by my side even though we didn’t play so well.”
Inside, he was almost certainly crying his eyes out.
McIlroy considered his driving the key to his downfall, yet he hit more fairways (8/14) than Phil Mickelson, who came home in 30 and shot a 66 to trail Hanson by a stroke on eight under par.
“I just couldn’t hit any fairways. When you can’t hit fairways around here you make life a lot more difficult for yourself. I was hanging in there, made a really good up‑and‑down on 4, good up‑and‑down on 6, and just sort of trying to hang in. Making double on the seventh and then another six on eight, that really knocked everything out of me and it was hard to get any momentum going after that.”
Former mentor Nick Faldo felt for McIlroy and said in commentary: “We all know, when it goes wrong, it just eats you alive here.”
Just a shot off the pace starting the day, the world No 2 careered to the turn in six over par 42 after a horror start and never looked like recovering from the moment he three-putted the par-five 13th for par.
McIlroy tallied 31 putts for the day after taking 29 and 30 putts for the first two rounds - not bad on the average tour course but not what’s required to win a Masters.
In contrast, title favourite Mickelson had just 26 putts as he followed nine straight pars on the front nine with a six under par 30 on the back nine for a 66 to trail 65 shooter Hanson by a stroke on eight under par.
McIlroy’s bad dream started when he carved his tee shot into the trees at the first and hit a low runner from the pine straw through the green onto a spectator path.
Unable to claim a drop, he clipped his third over the green then watched in agony as his fourth stopped at the top of a tier and trickled back down the slope, finishing 18 feet away.
Two putts later it all added up to a double bogey but the pain was only just beginning.
Bunkered off the tee at the par-five second, he missed from 15 feet for birdie and then did well to get up and down from the front bunker for par at the par-three fourth.
A bogey at the fifth put him on the defensive but the wheels came off for good when he double bogeyed the seventh. In the right trees off the tee, he played a low runner through a narrow gap to the mouth of the green, chipped to four feet short of the back left pin but raced his par putt four feet past and missed the one back.
A bogey at the par-five eighth left him eight shots off the pace and while he followed a bogey at the 11th with a birdie from six feet at the 12th, he three-putted the 13th for par, throwing away a great chance to mount a recovery having hit a career approach to the green.
He missed another birdie chance from around six feet at the 14th, chipped and putted for birdie at the 15th but then bogeyed the 17th, when he followed a nice chip from the back of the green with a poor putt from around four feet.
He ended the day with a smile when he came within a couple of inches of holing out for an eagle two at the last.
Tied for 27th place and looking ahead to a final round alongside McDowell, he said: “If I can finish top 10 it would be a really good result, I think. So if I can go out there tomorrow and shoot something in the mid 60s and walk away from here with a top 10, I’d be very pleased.”
Not quite what he was hoping for starting the day