Stress free golf and Augusta National don’t usually go hand in hand. Unless your name is Rory McIlroy.
Displaying a maturity beyond his years, the 21-year old from Holywood picked up three birdies in his last six holes to shoot a two under par 70 and double his overnight lead to a commanding four strokes over Angel Cabrera, Jason Day, Charl Schwartzel and KJ Choi entering the final round of the Masters.
“The last six holes were nice,” said McIlroy, who could become the first wire-to-wire winner since Trevor Immelman in 2008. “But I’ve been talking about it with my little team all year about just playing stress‑free golf.
“I felt as if last year, I had a chance to win a lot the tournaments and I didn’t do it just by making a few little mistakes here and there. I’ve really been concentrating on picking good targets for myself. And patience was huge for me today.”
Significantly for a player who was tipped as golf’s future crown prince by the game’s aristocracy more than two years ago, he now holds the biggest 54-hole Masters lead since Tiger Woods surged nine shots clear en route to his record-breaking, 12-stroke victory in 1997.
McIlroy, though, is sticking to his gameplan and refusing to imagine himself in the green jacket just yet.
Asked how it felt to hold a four-stroke lead with a round to go at the Masters, he said: “Feels nice. It feels good. I’m not getting ahead of myself. I know how leads can dwindle away very quickly.
“I have to go out there tomorrow, not take anything for granted and go out and play as hard as I’ve played the last three days. If I can do that, hopefully things will go my way.”
Woods went on to win another 13 majors following the ground-breaking 1997 Masters win that McIlroy remembers shot-for-shot, having sat up as an seven-year old to watch the action with his father Gerry.
But it looks likely that Woods will have to wait a little longer for his 15th major win after some poor putting led to two over par 74 on Saturday, leaving him a distant seven strokes behind McIlroy with a round to play.
There is no doubt the former world No 1 has been irked by McIlroy’s pronouncements on his game over the past eight months, especially when he said in a US magazine interview last month that the American is now playing like an “ordinary golfer.”
McIlroy is not a player who holes tons of putts but he has putted beautifully so far this week and has yet to register an official three-putt green while Woods has three-whacked four times already, including twice in a fraight third round performance.
“I had two three‑putts in there and then I hit just a lot of beautiful putts that didn’t go in,” said Woods, who is tied for ninth with Fred Couples (72), Geoff Ogilvy (73), Ross Fisher (71) and Bubba Watson (67) on five under. “Could have easily been three or four, or five‑under par.”
Asked if he could still win, Woods said: “Absolutely.” But he knows he needs to go low and get some help from McIlroy.
“Yeah, got to go out there and put together a good round tomorrow and see what happens,” he said.
If McIlroy continues to play as he has done all week, it will take something truly special from Woods and Co to prevent him from becoming the first Irishman to don the famous Augusta green jacket as a Masters champion.
He knows he must be patient if he is to remain in front, despite the fact that the chasing pack that is light on major winners.
Of the seven players within six shots of the lead, only the 41-year-old Argentinian Cabrera, winner of the 2007 US Open at Oakmont and the Masters two years ago, has a major title on his resumé.
El Pato fired a five under par 67 to clinch his place alongside McIlroy in the final two-ball with Choi (71) paired with the South African Schwartzel (68) in the penultimate group.
Day held the lead briefly after making three birdies in his first five holes but handed those shots back to post a 72 that secured him a final round date with compatriot Adam Scott, who bogeyed the last for a 67.
Scott is tied for sixth with England’s Luke Donald (69), five strokes behind McIlroy on seven under par with 35-year old Bo Van Pelt the leading American in solo eighth place on six under.
Woods wasn’t the only big name who failed to make a move on Saturday as McIlroy stood firm. Putting poorly, Lee Westwood shot 74 to slip nine strokes behind on three under and into a tie for 18th place with defending champion Phil Mickelson, who shot a 71.
McIlroy is out in front because he has struck the ball better than anyone in the field and made the fewest mistakes on the greens.
He leads driving distance category and is 13th for fairways hit and tied for second with Justin Rose (tied 30th on one under) for greens in regulation behind David Toms, who is 10 shots behind.
Supported from beyond the ropes by his friend Graeme McDowell, McIlroy took 32 putts yesterday but holed the ones that really mattered as the round drew to a close. Two putt birdies at the 13th and 15th, where he hit mignifiecent six irons to 30 and 20 feet respectively, helped him move three clear of Day before he extended his lead to four with a spectacular and unexpected birdie three at the 17th.
Having hooked his drive into the trees, McIlroy blasted a high draw with a wedge that travelled 155 yards and finished 30 feet from the pin at the back of the green.
He trickled the putt down the slope, raised his putter in a move reminiscent of Jack Nicklaus’s “Yes sir” birdie of 1986 as it turned left at the death, punching the air twice with his right fist as it toppled in the front door.
It was the longest putt he had holed all week.
“It was a bonus for that putt to go in,” McIlroy said. “After I hit the tee shot, I would have just loved to walk away from that green with a four and moved on to the 18th tee. Hit the putt perfectly where I lined it up. I was tracking the whole way and just dropped in the middle. It was great, because I had been waiting on a putt to sort of drop all day and for it to drop there, it was great timing.”
It was another watershed day for McIlroy, who has come through every test with flying colours so far this week.
After pars at the first three holes, he birdied the par-three fourth with a sensational three iron to six feet but when he bogeyed the fifth after finding the left bunker off the tee, he suddenly found himself one behind Day, who birdied the second, third and fifth to turn a two shot deficit into a one-stroke lead.
The 23-year old Australian suddenly got vertigo, dropping shots at the sixth and seventh to hand McIlroy back the lead.
The Ulsterman missed 10 footers for birdie at the eighth and ninth and then dropped a shot at the 10th when he failed to get up and down from just off the green on the left, missing a 10 footer for his par.
But he played the rest of the back nine like a veteran, getting up and down from left of the 12th for par before powering a six iron to the heart of the 13th to set up an easy birdie.
His remaining birdies separated him from the field and while he knows that he will be compared to Woods if he wins today, he has no such ambitions.
He said: “He’s done so much more for the game than I ever could or will, breaking down barriers. But a win for me, personally, it would be huge; it would be huge.
“And for the game of golf, it would be nice, as well. It would be nice to get a major early and show some of the young guys that it is possible. But as I said, we’ll see what happens tomorrow, because four shots on this golf course isn’t that much.”
Asked how he was curious how he will feel on the first tee, he said:
“I’m excited to find out. Yeah, definitely. This is a great position to be in. Yeah, I’m looking forward to the challenge.
“It’s natural to get nervous. If I wasn’t nervous in the first tee tomorrow, there would be something wrong. So, yeah, I’ll be nervous, but once that first tee shot gets out of there, you’re off and running and you’re just trying to do your thing.”
McIlroy knows he is the man to beat but he has no intention of worrying about his rivals. Not even Tiger Woods.
“To be honest, I have to, in my own mind, start tomorrow fresh and just say, look, there’s no lead, there’s no nothing. I’ve just got to go out there and play solid golf. If I can do that, I feel as if I’ll have as good a chance as anyone; obviously with a four‑shot lead.
“But I’ve just got to really try and say to myself that, you know, it’s a new day and we are going to go out and just do the same thing we have done the last three days.”
As for his pairing with Cabrera, he said: “It doesn’t matter who is beside me to be honest. As I said before, all I can control is myself and my own golf game, and that’s it.
“You know, I can’t control what anyone else does. You know, to be thinking about someone else or some other players tomorrow would be very naïve and very silly on my part. So I’ve just got to go out and concentrate on myself.”
“I said this yesterday. I’ve prepared as good as anyone else. I feel as if I’m striking the ball, hitting the ball as good as anyone else.
“The more rounds you play on this golf course, the more you get to know it, and the more you feel a little bit more comfortable on it. Yeah, I just feel with my all‑around game this week, it’s just been ‑‑ it’s been comfortable, and I can draw confidence from that.
“I did a lot of great work with my coach last week, Michael Bannon. I’m really happy with where my swing is and my game is at. When you know that your swing is on a good plane and on a good line, that gives you confidence to hit some shots.”
McIlroy was boosted by the support of Graeme McDOwell, who tried to go unnoticed in shorts, dark glasses and a plain cap as he followed his friend around. “He was out watching me today actually. Actually he just texted me and told me he loves me. I don’t know what that means. (Laughter) I don’t know if that’s him or the beer talking. I don’t know what that means.
“No, it’s great to see him out there and I appreciate his support. He’s going to know how I’m feeling. He’s a Major Champion and he got it done last year at Pebble. Hopefully I can emulate that feeling and get a major myself.”
Beating McIlroy will be no easy feat, as Day explained.
“Well, 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.
“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 I guess.
“But you know, he’s very mentally tough. He’s a great golfer, and if he wins this thing tomorrow, he deserves it, definitely.”