Faith is the last thing you lose but Rory McIlroy is clinging grimly to the lifeline thrown to him by Jordan Spieth and hoping he can produce the final round charge he needs to win the Masters.
The County Down man suffered yet another Augusta National disappointment when he failed to make even one birdie for the first time since last year’s Irish Open and capitulated in his head-to-head with Spieth, carding a five over 77 to his rival’s 73.
The Texan may not be inside the Holywood star’s head but it certainly looks that way having surged eight shots clear of him with two holes to play.
That he failed to nail McIlroy’s coffin lid firmly closed, bogeying the 17th and three putting the last for a double bogey, both after sliced tee shots into the trees, had nothing to do with any pressure McIlroy was applying.
Spieth is not thinking so much that he gave McIlroy a lifeline but that he opened the door for nine other players such as 24-year old Smylie Kaufman, who is one behind on two under after a 69, or the time time winner Bernhard Langer or Hideki Matsuyama, who are only two back.
Spieth will also be looking anxiously over his shoulder for power merchants such as Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Danny Willett, who are just three adrift on level par with lee Westwood, Soren Kjeldsen and Brandt Snedeker just four back.
That Mcilroy missed a nine footer that would have left him in that latter group and only four behind — the same margin that Charl Schwartzel trailed him by on that fateful Sunday in 2011 — said it all about his putting.
The difference between 2011 and today is that Schwartzel was tied for second and McIlroy is joint 11th. Even Jack Nicklaus was “only” four behind and tied for ninth in 1986.
Be that as it may, McIlroy still felt like he’d won the lottery, despite another forgettable Saturday during which he hit just seven fairways and had some 34 putts on greens that were lightning fast with devilish pin positions.
“I couldn’t get anything going really,” McIlroy said with great understatement. “It felt more like a US Open than a Masters today. I am disappointed. I felt like I righted the ship a little on the back nine but couldn’t take the few opportunities I gave myself.
“If I am to take heart from anything then it’s the fact Jordan has just let a lot of people in after his finish. But I need to get off to a fast start tomorrow.
“The forecast is for better conditions tomorrow and we know stranger things have happened but I need to play a lot better than I played today.”
The truth is that if the Holywood star wanted to show Spieth who’s boss when he went into the third round just a shot behind the defending champion, he suffered a moral defeat.
With capricious winds and hard and fast conditions once again the test, McIlroy’s A game evaporated on the sweet Georgia air and he needed a large dollop of help from the Texan to keep his title hopes barely on life support. Even then he couldn’t take full advantage, missing birdie putts on the last two green.
As Spieth bogeyed the 17th and double bogeyed the 18th for a one over 73, McIlroy was erratic in every department of his game and missed a nine footer for birdie on the last that would have cut the gap to four.
Instead he missed and a five over 77 leaves him five strokes behind 22-year old Spieth in a share of 11th.
The young Texan is on track to become the first man to retain the green jacket since Tiger Woods in 2004 and also to become youngest man to successful defend a major since Gene Sarazen 90 years ago.
“It’s difficult to play with the lead on this course because you are on the defensive the whole time and there you can’t take many flags on and leaving yourself lag putts the whole time,” McIlroy explained.
“But hopefully the conditions are better tomorrow and we can make a few birdies and see what happens.”
Ever the optimist, McIlroy talked the talk after his round and while he is well capable of shooting a 65, it remains to be seen if five under would be enough to win and complete the career Grand Slam.
“I think it’s winnable from here,” he said, warming to the theme. “If Jordan hadn’t had that finish he had, then I would probably say no. But he finished that way and the guys on two and three over like myself feel like we have a chance now.
“I just have to make sure that I get off to a fast start and put some red numbers on the board and make a bit of noise to put a bit of pressure on the guys playing behind me.
“I need to be more aggressive. I played very tentatively today right from the get-go.”
Spieth was sick to the stomach after his finish but he vowed to banish all negative thoughts before he goes out with 24-year old Kaufman in the final group.
The kid fromAlabama shot a 69 to move into second place on two under par, one ahead of the evergreen 58-year old Langer, who rolled back the years with a 70 to share third with Japan’s Matsuyama on one under par.
McIlroy went out just a shot behind Spieth with momentum on his side but ended up failing to make a birdie in a round of golf for the first time since his opening 80 in the Irish Open at Royal County Down 10 months ago.
It wasn’t so much his putting that let him down this time as his driving and he failed to birdie any of the par-fives, driving into fairway bunkers at the second and eighth, into trees at the 13th and behind trees at the 15th.
With that lack of control, he soon fell well off the pace as Spieth played his usual, grinding game to go the turn in one under to his two over and found himself four behind.
Spieth had birdied the second and parred the third to stretch his lead to three, and he got more help from McIlroy at the seventh where he bogeyed off a bunkered second and Holywood star repaid the favour by three putting.
McIlroy then drove into a deep fairway bunker at the eighth and could only make par to Spieth’s pitch and putt four. Four behind.
The first three holes on the back nine have been kind to Spieth and unkind to Mcilroy in their respective careers.
And so it proved last night.
McIlroy hooked into the trees at the 10th and made bogey. But he then made a major tactical error at the 11th.
After hooking hit tee shot into the pin needles, he tried to reach the green with an ambitious, low running hook and ended up in the pond.
Many will wonder why his caddie JP Fitzgerald didn’t step him and urge him play short of the green and try for a chip and putt birdie.
But he ended up making a double bogey six — his third double or worse at that hole since 2012 — but Spieth missed the green and then three putted to match him, leaving the gap at five.
While Spieth still had the lead he was just one ahead of Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama on three under par.
Mcilroy needed something good to happened but while ehe hit a great tee shot to 10 feet at the 12th, Spieth holed a 17 footer before him and he failed match it.
Now six behind, McIlroy parred the next six holes, driving into trouble at the 13th and 15th when he really needed birdies.
Spieth turned the screw, holing a seven footer for birdie at the 14th and a 10 footer at the 15th to go eight clear of the Ulsterman.
But he drove into the woods and bogeyed the 17th, then did the same again at the last, three putting for double bogey six to find himself just one ahead of Kaufman and one two clear of Langer and Matsuyama.
“It's very difficult,” Spieth said when asked how he could lift his spirits last night and see the bigger picture.
“It's going to be very difficult. As I look at the leaderboard now, if I can just make three pars to finish ‑‑ I played the last three holes, the last two days, 5‑over par. There was no challenge in those holes really.
“You know, that's what's tough for me is those three holes, you should be able to hit the three greens in regulation, and if you play them 1‑over, you play them 1‑over, but they are not the hard holes out here. That's what's tough.
“If I'm at 5‑, 6‑under, even just saying that right now, I can't think that way. That certainly brings anyone who is over par almost out of the tournament. And now with very little wind tomorrow, someone gets on a run and shoots 6‑, 7‑under, you know, I know I have to shoot a significant under par round tomorrow in order to win this tournament, when I could have played a different style of golf like I did on Sunday last year.”
Asked how he felt compared to last year, he said: I’ve certainly felt better last year on Saturday night than I do right now. I had a four‑shot lead and everything was going right. Just came off a great up‑and‑down on 18. Yeah, I felt much better ‑‑ I felt much better about my position last year than I do right this second, just because of what happened in the last 40 minutes.
“But at the same time, I feel that if I can get to the range, I straighten the ball out tomorrow, I get back to the same routine I was just in, I certainly think that down the stretch, I'm better prepared now than I was at this point last year.
“It's hard for me to say that because we just answered every statement made on the golf course last year on Sunday. So I can't rely on the putter the way I did today. I've got to strike the ball better. That's what leaves me a little uneasy compared to last year.
"I was at a four‑shot lead and we were, what, 16‑under. I've got to, and I relied on my putter on Sunday last year and it came through. Can't do that every single round, so I've got to put myself in better positions tomorrow.”
As for McIlroy’s comeback is concerned, he can look to the history books for a modicum of solace.
The last man to win the Masters from five behind was Art Wall in 1959. Nick Faldo was six back in 1996 but he was in last group. McIlroy goes out in the sixth last match with Daniel Berger, 50 minutes before Spieth and Kaufman.