AUGUSTA, Ga. — They all were chasing Rory McIlroy.
Everyone — from his stubbly-faced playing partner to the game’s most recognizable name to the defending Masters champion — wanted to make up a shot here or there. Find a crack in his Irish armor or see a slip in his 21-year-old nerves.
Late Saturday night, they were still waiting.
Golf’s best were hoping to make up ground, to match the fireworks from Friday’s second round that felt like Masters shoutouts of old. Friday featured enough highlights to overflow Rae’s Creek.
Jason Day earned a spot in Saturday’s final group with McIlory by shooting a 64, missing the tournament record by one. Tiger Woods made everyone wonder if he was ready to return to the top of golf by making nine birdies Friday, and Phil Mickelson said he was close and that three green jackets give him reason to believe.
Late Saturday night, we were still waiting.
In the end, the pieces just changed places, with the names and the pedigrees and the countries being casually thrown together like the haphazard color combinations of the players in the field.
On a Masters Moving Day that was defined more by false starts than full charges, no one seriously threaten McIlroy.
Playing partner Day took a brief lead midway through Saturday afternoon, but it was short-lived — 10 minutes, in fact. Yes, Angel Cabrera, a two-time major champion closed with three birdies in the final eight holes to get to 8 under.
But McIlroy, the freckled-faced, floppy-haired hotshot, was unfazed. He never looked rattled, and when he poured in a 33-footer from the back of the 17th green for birdie, he moved as close to a Saturday fitting for a green jacket as anyone since Woods in 1997.
McIlroy seems to be in a place mentally to win. He’s had at least a share of the lead at the end of each day, and he’s joked about throwing the football and staying loose with his mates. Saturday he talked about the importance of playing “stress-free” golf and patience.
“It’s natural to get nervous,” he said. “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.”
The rest of the field better hope the nervousness is true, and now he’s forced them all to chase him down. Plus, the game’s most renowned hunters are bordering on outside the strike zone.
Woods’ balky putter betrayed him time and again Saturday, leaving little hope. He’s 5 under — trailing by a full seven shots with at least eight players in front of him — and he’s never won a major when he did not have at least a share of the 54-hole lead. This would be a monumental task for the Tiger of old; it’s nearly impossible for this Tiger who looks old.
While Woods’ putting has left him on the fringe of relevance today, Mickelson’s driver has cost him the chance at becoming the first repeat winner here since Woods in 2002. Mickelson is last among the 49 players who made it to the weekend in driving accuracy. He’s 3 under, nine behind McIlroy, in a group of players that includes Lee Westwood, who will be regarded as the world’s best player without a major title for at least a couple more months.
Can anyone stop McIlroy’s pursuit? Doubtful.
Cabrera, maybe. The Argentinian known as the Duck won here two years ago and hits it as long as anyone. Or even Day, who is tied with Cabrera at 8 under.
Maybe an Adam Scott or a Luke Donald, two guys who have flirted with the “best to never win a major title” in years past? Each is at 7 under and carded third rounds in the 60s.
Most of Saturday’s movement came from somewhere in middle — of the Masters pack and from the middle-of-the-road guys who are far from household names. Charl Schwartzel, K.J. Choi, Ross Fisher? Yes, there were Americans entered in this tournament, but as we approach the final round of the Masters, Bo Van Pelt — yes, Bo Van Pelt — is the highest ranked American on the leaderboard.
And they’re all chasing McIlroy, who may be the only golfer on the planet who can stop his pursuit of his first major championship.
“I really don’t care about anyone else in this golf tournament, other than myself,” he said. “I can only control what I do, and after three rounds I’ve controlled what I can do pretty well.”
The wait is almost over now.
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...