Rory McIlroy admits he needs the round of his life now after a frustrating 71 left him with a near impossible task in the Masters.
The Holywood star was targeting a score in the mid-60s to get back in the mix for a win that would see him become one of just six players to complete the career Grand Slam.
But despite some impressive big-hitting, his shot selection and putting game let him down in perfect conditions at a windless Augusta National, and he’s now six behind Justin Rose (67) and Sergio Garcia (70), who lead by a shot from Rickie Fowler (71) on six-under par.
As Jordan Spieth fired a 68 to move up to tied fourth with Ryan Moore (69) and Charley Hoffman (72) on four under par, McIlroy missed a golden opportunity to close in on the lead.
There’s still hope for the 27-year old Co Down man. But at tied 11th with Paul Casey, Soren Kjeldsen, Matt Kuchar, Jon Rahm and William McGirt, he made need a 64 or a 63 to have any chance.
"I need to play the round of my life tomorrow," McIlroy said. "You can’t just start to gung-ho it around here and go for shots that aren’t on.
"You still have to play smart when you have to. I’ll just try to take my chances, birdie the par fives, birdie some of the other holes and try not to make too many mistakes."
To put the challenge in perspective, the last man to come from outside the Top-10 to win the Masters was Art Wall Jnr, who was six behind and 13th after 54 holes in 1959.
Considering McIlroy has now gone seven straight rounds at Augusta without breaking 70, he knows it’s a massive challenge to shoot the round of his life now”.
McIlroy said: “I think I probably could have shot a 67 or 68 but there were just a few too many wasted opportunities on the back nine.
"My best score around here is 65 and I’m going to need something like that if not lower to have a chance tomorrow.
"I’ll be able to tell you better tomorrow night if I think those missed opportunities have ruined my chances, but I just need to go out and play a good round of golf tomorrow."
The world No 2 got the fast start he wanted with birdies the second and third.
But a three-putt bogey at the fifth and another three-putt for a double bogey six at the seventh took all the wind out of his sails.
He rallied with birdies at the eighth and 12th but missed a string of chances coming home with four going begging from inside 10 feet at the 11th, 13th, 14th and 15th.
A missed 20 footer for birdie at the 18th meant he finished level par for the tournament — six behind Rose — after a 33-putt round.
The Masters is not won until the back nine on Sunday but McIlroy did himself few favours over that famous stretch last night, especially with the putter and his club selections.
At the 11th he ripped his approach to seven feet and looked utterly frustrated as the putt slipped past.
Six behind Hoffman at that stage, he needed to find birdies fast and got one from 20 feet the short 12th to get back to within five.
The par-five 13th is one of his favourite holes but after the longest drive of the day there left him just 174 yards to the pin, he found himself between clubs, missed the green left and never threatened to hole a 15-footer for birdie after a weak chip.
With Spieth racing to four under through 13 and tied second, McIlroy was under pressure and missed a nine-foot chance at the 14th after another huge drive.
He then missed another nine footer at the 15th, where he mis-clubbed again and airmailed the green.
He did manage to avoid another three-putt at the 16th, holing a nine footer there for par.
But it was all a massive let down after he had gotten off to the rip-roaring start he wanted with birdies at the second and third.
His luck started to turn when he came up short at the fifth and three-putted after racing a tough 42-footer 12 feet past.
"The one place you don’t want to miss it there is short," he said of the fifth. "And I did and three-putted so that stopped any momentum I had and I got a bit frustrated."
After leaking his drive under trees at the seventh, the four-time major winner came up short in the front trap but came out to 60 feet and three-putted again.
"I had a tough break on seven," he said of a tee shot that kicked right under the trees. "It’s tough from there and I tried to get a bit cute with the bunker shot and three-putted there."
A bounce-back birdie at the long eighth, where he got up and down from left of the green by holing a four footer, got him back to level for the day.
He was six behind Hoffman and Sergio Garcia heading into Amen Corner and needed to produce something special with Jordan Spieth cruising through the turn in 33 to get to within two of the lead.
He couldn't produce the birdies and it now appears that McIlroy's challenge at Augusta National is mental more than technical.
“The mental side is huge,” he said as Hoffman lost a three-shot lead after 13 holes with a bogey at the 14th and a double bogey at the 16th after he found the water from the tee.
"It’s the most important thing. Even if you aren’t playing well and your head is in the right place you’ll always have a chance.
"I feel like I play as aggressive as anyone around here. It hasn’t done me much good yet!
"But it’s one of these courses where you get a bit too aggressive, miss it on the wrong side and you end up not with birdie but with bogey and that gets frustrating."