McIlroy embraces Masters destiny: "I feel like all the pressure is on him"

McIlroy embraces Masters destiny: "I feel like all the pressure is on him"
 Rory McIlroy celebrates making eagle on the eighth hole at Augusta National. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy celebrates making eagle on the eighth hole at Augusta National. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

An epic awaits — the biggest ego in golf against the biggest talent with a stellar cast waiting in the wings to steal the show.

When all is said and down, Rory McIlroy has stuck rigidly to his script all week and insists he’s ready to put his 2011 meltdown behind him and meet his date with destiny when he chases down Patrick Reed for Masters and Grand Slam glory today.

The pride of Holywood is three shots behind the Texan (27) going into the final round at Augusta National knowing that history is on his side.

If Reed doesn't become the first man to shoot four rounds in the sixties at the Masters, forcing McIlroy to shoot 66 at worst to force a play-off, it's game on.

Despite the fact that Rickie Fowler and Jon Rahm are lurking, five and six shots behind respectively, McIlroy sounded like a man three shots ahead rather than three behind after equalling his career-best round with an immaculate, seven-under 65.

Final round pairings

It was a 65 blessed with several strokes of good fortune. But McIlroy embraced the good and the bad, as he has done all week, like a man who knows that if he keeps thinking positively, the golfing gods may smile on him again on Sunday.

"I feel like all the pressure is on him," McIlroy said after a lucky kick from trees into the fairway at the 18th allowed him to set up a 17-foot birdie chance he duly converted for a bogey-free 65 to Reed's 67 to sit alone in second place on 11-under par.  

"He's got to go out and protect that, and he's got a few guys chasing him that are pretty big‑time players. He's got that to deal with and sleep on tonight. 

"I feel like I can go out there and play like I've got nothing to lose. If I can do that, I feel like I'll be okay."

The Co Down man knows how it feels to take the lead into the final round and collapse under pressure.

He was four clear after rounds of 65, 69 and 70 seven years ago but ended up shooting 80 to slip to 15th behind Charl Schwartzel.

"I've been waiting for this chance, to be honest," McIlroy said. "I always have said that 2011 was a huge turning point in my career.  It was the day that I realised I wasn't ready to win major championships, and I needed to reflect on that and realise what I needed to do differently. 
 
"But now I am ready.  I learned a lot from it.  I'm happy to be in the final group.  Obviously, I'm not in the lead like I was going into that day, so I probably don't have as much pressure.  

"I don't have to protect anything.  I can go out and sort of free‑wheel like I did today, which is a great position to be in. 

"I wish I was a little closer to the lead or leading, but I'm in the final group, and I've shot 65 on moving day at the Masters. It's all I can ask for."

Reed's best finish in a major is a share of second behind Justin Thomas in last year's US PGA. 

And while he agreed that he is undoubtedly under massive pressure, he reckons the burden of the career Grand Slam on McIlroy's shoulders can't hurt his chances.

"I am leading," Reed conceded when told that McIlroy said the pressure was all on him. "I mean, I guess so.  But at the same time, he's trying to go for the career Grand Slam.  You can put it either way.  

"I mean, honestly, I woke up this morning, felt fine. Didn't feel any pressure. Just came out and tried to play some golf. 

"And I believe that's how it's going to be tomorrow. Wake up and just come out and play golf and whatever happens, happens."

McIlroy knows it's not that easy and was at pains to point out that with four majors already on the mantelpiece at home, he's got all the experience on his side.

"I've always said that the final round of 2011 was a huge turning point in my career,” McIlroy said.

“It was the round that got me ready to win major championships. I wasn't ready at that point but looking back I learnt a lot from it. 

"This is my next opportunity to be in the final round at the Masters and put all those wrongs right. I feel like I learned a lot from it and I come in a much better player, a much more mature player and I feel like that will be a huge help tomorrow."

His duel with Reed will bring back memories of his Ryder Cup singles loss to the Texan at Hazeltine two years ago, even if this is a far different prospect.

"I am looking forward to it," he said. "We started off all square there, and he is a few shots ahead of me this time. 

“But I know what it's like to be in that position [he was four ahead in 2011] and it isn't easy, especially if it is your first time. 

"But I am going to go out and freewheel it tomorrow and play like I have nothing to lose and a lot to gain, which I do. 

"He is obviously playing very well, and if he continues to play like that, I will need another round like today to have a chance.”

Experience will be key, and McIlroy reckons he holds all the aces given that he is playing his best golf and knows how to get the job done.

"I don't feel there's any shot on the golf course that I can't execute, and I feel like I have shown that over the last three days, whether it be drives or second shots or chips or bunker shots or putts. 
  
"I feel like all aspects of my game are in really good shape, and I'm much more relaxed.  This isn't my first time in this position now.  I've been able to close the deal a few times before this, and I have that to fall back on tomorrow. 

"I've got a lot of experience in these positions and experience that I've learned from, good and bad, and I feel like all of those experiences will help me tomorrow."

If the chasing pack gets off to a fast start, McIlroy knows anything can happen.

But he also knows how to get around Augusta National, and with his short game as good as it's ever been, he will be the red-hot favourite.

If he's as fortunate in the final round as he was on Saturday, he will be unbeatable.

He bounced out of trees at the first and last, hit the face of a bunker at the fifth but still ended up with a birdie chance, hit the pin a clatter when chipping in for eagle at the eighth and got lucky in the azaleas at the 13th before showing his scoring prowess by finishing birdie-par-par-birdie.

"I rode my luck a little bit out there at times and got a couple of fortunate breaks but to win a golf tournament like this you need to have luck on your side,” he said.

He went on the attack from the start and got the very most out of his game, picking up three birdies in his first six holes to close to within a shot of the lead.

After ricocheting out of the trees at the first and getting a lie in the pine trees at the second, he rolled in a 20 footer for a birdie at the third and never looked back.

At the par-three fourth, he hit a seven-iron to 20 feet and rolled in a slick left-to-right slider for his first birdie there since 2012 to be just three shots behind.

A brilliant tee shot to just two feet at the sixth set up a birdie that got him to within a shot of Reed on seven-under before the American birdied the fifth from 20 feet to get back to level for the day having bogeyed the third.

Lady Luck appeared to have turned her back on him at the par-five eighth where his three wood kicked right, leaving him a tricky, 28-yard pitch.

But he played it low off his back foot and got a huge break when it clambered onto the green at speed, hit the flagstick a thump and dropped in for an eagle three to give him a share of the lead

It was little wonder that McIlroy unleashed a mega fist-pump — his first show of emotion all week having battled hard to remain on an even keel.

A par at the ninth saw him go out in 31, his lowest opening nine in 37 Masters rounds.

But Reed, as he did in his Ryder Cup singles win over McIlroy at Hazeltine, was not about to let him have it all his way.

He replied with birdies from eight feet at the eighth, 25 feet at the ninth and nine feet at the 10th to take a three-stroke lead into Amen Corner.

McIlroy was under pressure now and showed his mettle by getting up and down from the front bunker at the 12th for par, slotting in a seven-footer.

Heavy rain was falling, and when Reed bogeyed the 12th to see his lead cut to two, McIlroy pulled his 193-yard approach into the azaleas at the 13th and did well to save par.

Not only did he find his ball, but he was also able to hack it back into play before chipping to four feet to set up a par that felt like a birdie.

"It was a sea of pink," he said of his lie in the flowers left of the 13th. "I was lucky just to see the ball, and I had a stance. Azaleas are actually pretty thin down below.  They look pretty thick on top, but down below they are actually not too bad.  

"I could take a stance and just sort of pick the club straight up and get it back down on top of it and just trundle it out through the pine straw and back on to the grass." 

Reed watched it all from the fairway and hit a three iron to 14 feet before rolling in the eagle putt to lead by four.

He then made a brilliant par at the 14th, two putting from 100 feet having driven into the trees.

But while McIlroy still made birdie after a lay upat the 15th, rolling in a 17 footer, Reed chipped in from 75 feet for another eagle to extend his lead to five strokes.

McIlroy knew he needed a big finish and he produced it despite hitting three poor shots off the tee at the last three holes.

He made par at the 16th and 17th, then made another mid-range birdie putt at the 18th as Reed three-putted the 16th, saved par from nine feet at the 17th but missed a ten footer at the last that would have given him a four-shot lead.

That said, he believes he has the mojo to react to anything might throw at him today.

"If I feel like I'm playing really well, I almost feel like I can kick it into another gear and go even deeper," he said. "It's just kind of one of those things that I've been working on it and trying to tap into Ryder Cups more and more and try to play some solid golf.  

"I feel like I was able to tap into it a little bit today, especially on that back nine when I get to 8, my lead's gone; I'm all‑square, and to be able to all of a sudden go birdie, birdie, birdie and get back up three; to bogey 12, but to bounce back with an eagle; and to make a great 2‑putt on 14 and then chip‑in for eagle after seeing Rory birdie 15, it's just one of those things that I was able to get into that mode and get into that momentum and just try to keep going."