On Saturday afternoon, Rory McIlroy will be right where he hoped to be when he teed off Friday in the second round of the 80th Masters Tournament.
That will be on the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club alongside defending champion Jordan Spieth in the final twosome of the third round.
McIlroy shot a 1-under 71 Friday to move into second place at 3-under 141, and Spieth stumbled down the stretch to see his lead diminish and set up a showdown Saturday of two of the world’s top three players and the game’s young stars.
Spieth bogeyed two of his final three holes to shoot a 2-over 74 and holds just a one-shot lead over McIlroy at 4-under 140.
“[The pairing will] add a lot of excitement and buzz and atmosphere to the tournament obviously,” McIlroy said. “But at the same time, I just need to focus on myself and make sure that I play another solid round of golf.”
Danny Lee and Scott Piercy are tied for third and two shots behind Spieth. Brandt Snedeker, Hideki Matsuyama and Soren Kjeldsen are three back, and six players are tied for eighth at even par including Coastal Carolina alumnus Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia and amateur Bryson DeChambeau on an international leaderboard with eight nations represented in the top 10.
Spieth has matched Arnold Palmer’s record from 1960-61 for the most consecutive rounds with the outright lead in the Masters with six dating back to the first round last year, and he can set the mark if he can hold of McIlroy and the other challengers Saturday.
“I'd rather be playing with someone less threatening to be honest,” Spieth said with a chuckle. “He's certainly proven himself in majors. But I think it's going to be fun, a really fun challenge.”
McIlroy has won four majors and has a chance to complete the career Grand Slam with a win Sunday, while Spieth is seeking his third title in the past five majors and is trying to join Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods as the only players to win back-to-back green jackets.
“It's a very big weekend for me. I know that,” McIlroy said.
Spieth threatened to run away with the lead as he did last year in the second round with birdies on two of his first three holes. He holed a 14-foot birdie putt on the first hole and hit a wedge to 2 feet for birdie on the third hole to open up a five-shot lead at 8 under.
But he double-bogeyed the fifth hole with a shocking four-putt to fall back to 6 under, and battled to make two birdies and four bogeys over his final 11 holes and cling to his lead by getting up and down for par from a greenside bunker with a 14-foot putt on the 18th.
“I dropped a few, but all in all I’m still in the lead,” Spieth said. “It was a good save at the last to see a putt go in.”
McIlroy had dropped four shots to par after a pair of early birdies got him to 4 under, but finished with birdies on three of his final six holes to get back to 3 under.
“I’m definitely feeling a lot better about myself after finishing this round of golf the way I did compared to how I finished the round [Thursday],” said McIlroy, who bogeyed two of his final three holes in the first round to shoot 70. “. . . I’m happy with the round and how I battled and fought out there and I’m sure I’ll have to do the same thing tomorrow.”
McIlroy birdied the par-5 13th and 15th holes and drained a breaking 40-foot bomb on the 16th.
“I started it, I don't know, maybe 6 feet left of the hole and just got it up there, really, really high and basically let gravity and wind take it the rest of the way,” McIlroy said. “I was just looking to two‑putt, try to get it within 2 or 3 feet of the hole, and it was a bonus when it dropped.”
McIlroy was in danger of dropping a shot or more on the 18th hole after driving deep into the right trees, but he managed to escape on his second shot and rolled in a 6-foot putt to save par and claim his spot in the final group.
“There actually wasn’t a window,” McIlroy said of his second shot. “I was going to hit something for sure. It was a little bit of a hit and hope and it worked out for me. It was really important to get that ball up‑and‑down, to make par, and to finish on 3 under.
“I felt like it was maybe a chance for me to get into the final group going into the weekend.”
Formidable winds that are expected to again be a factor Saturday, and firming, fast greens led to McIlroy’s 71 matching the low round Friday.
“I think at one point I was maybe seven or eight shots back of Jordan today,” McIlroy said. “It just shows you how quickly things can change, especially here on this golf course in these conditions.”
McIlroy tied for fourth last year, six shots behind Spieth, and played weekend rounds of 68 and 66 while basically out of contention.
“I've played this golf course well on the weekend the last couple years, and I have to take confidence from that,” McIlroy said. “Hopefully it's a third year in a row and a third weekend in a row where I can post a couple of good scores and see where that leaves me at the end of the week.”
Reigning U.S. Amateur and NCAA Division I champion Bryson DeChambeau was threatening to play with Spieth for a third consecutive day in Saturday’s final group before making a bogey on the 16th and triple-bogey on the 18th to fall to even-par 144.
DeChambeau was 3 under through 17 holes and needed a par to have the low round of the day by two strokes, but he pulled his drive into woods and near a building on the 18th. He opted to return to the tee and hit his next drive to the left again.
“I wasn't nervous. I pulled two shots. It's a disappointment factor, but again that's golf,” said DeChambeau, who is trying to become the Masters’ first amateur winner. “I'm loving it out here. It's a great experience. I'm learning a lot from it. There's nothing bad that I can take away from today. I may go bang my head a couple of times. But again, 36 holes of golf left.”