Jordan Spieth comes out on top in battle of the big guns

Rory McIlroy, right, and Jordan Spieth went head to head on day three of the Masters.  Picture: Harry How/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy, right, and Jordan Spieth went head to head on day three of the Masters. Picture: Harry How/Getty Images

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It was a day when we learned two things about The Masters.

One was that Jordan Spieth can go on to challenge Jack Nicklaus, with his six, for the record of Green Jackets. The 22-year-old Texan owns Augusta National at the moment. Now leading this event for the seventh consecutive round, Spieth takes a one-shot lead into the final round. He had a four-shot cushion with two holes to play before finishing 5-6 but is still in the driving seat. He’s on the brink of joining Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Tiger Woods (2001-02) as the only players to have won here back-to-back.

Bernhard Langer, at 58, was a surprise challenger on day three at Augusta.  Picture: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Bernhard Langer, at 58, was a surprise challenger on day three at Augusta. Picture: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

“That wasn’t ideal,” said Spieth of his finish, having carded a 73 for a three-under-par 213 total. “But this is the position I wanted to be in after 54 holes so I’ve got to come out tomorrow and not think about the finish today.”

The other was that Rory McIlroy is going to have his work cut out to make the breakthrough here and, in doing so, become just the sixth man to complete the career Grand Slam in golf. Paired with Spieth and only one behind at the start, the 26-year-old Northern Irishman suffered a frustrating day.

It was second only in terms of disappoinment for McIlroy here to the last-round 80 that saw him miss out after taking a four-shot lead into the final round in 2011. He couldn’t muster a single birdie. A double-bogey 6 after finding water at the 11th wasn’t what the doctor ordered, either. The four-time major winner trails by five after a 77 on a day when the gusts were getting up to 28mph.

“I couldn’t get anything going really. I am disappointed,” admitted McIlroy. “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. I need to be more aggressive. I played very tentatively today right from the get-go.”

Spieth’s new nearest challenger is a young man with an interesting name. Smylie Kaufman is playing here for the first time. The 24-year-old American was certainly all smiles after a best-of-the-day 69 catapulted him into contention. It will be interesting to see how he copes now with the spotlight of playing in the final group on Masters Sunday.

Two players are a shot further behind. One is another of the game’s young guns, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama. The other is a golden oldie. Bernhard Langer recorded the second of two victories here in 1993 three months before Spieth was born. The German is now 58 but he’s barely changed over the years and can still cut the mustard. A 70 that included three back-nine birdies in a row was evidence of that.

Jack Nicklaus, at 46, is the oldest winner of this event. Julius Boros was two years older when he became the sport’s oldest major champion with victory in the 1968 US PGA Championship. Langer has given himself a great chance of raising that particular bar by 10 years.

Langer finished eighth two years ago. He’s threatening to better that after an astonishing third-day effort. Two early birdies - at the second and fifth - got the juices flowing, though that doesn’t take much with this remarkable man.

His card was illuminated, though, by a burst of three straight birdies from the 13th. The middle one was a chip in after playing partner Day had rolled in a 69-footer for his 3.

It was thought the introduction of the anchoring ban at the beginning of this year would spell the end for Langer as a winner, having relied on a long model probably more than anyone else in the game.

He’d already proved that theory wrong, though, with yet another Champions Tour success earlier in the year, having managed to get as comfortable with the same putter held away from his chest rather than nestled there.

Now he’s in with a chance of eclipsing Nicklaus, who became the oldest winner of this event at 46 exactly 30 years ago. Guess who slipped the Green Jacket on his shoulders that year? Yes, Langer, who’d won here for the first time the previous year before repeating the feat in 1993.

“I’ve been saying for a long time that it is going to happen sooner or later,” said Langer of someone taking this age record age away from Nicklaus or an over-50s player winning one of the other majors.

“I don’t hit it as far as the likes of Davis Love, Fred Couples or Vijay Singh, but I try to make up for it in other areas. So far, so good and I will go out and do my best tomorrow.”

The performance drew praise from his playing partner, who is also very much in the hunt after clawing his way back following a damaging run that saw him spill five shots over the closing four holes on Thursday.

“That was just so impressive to watch,” said Day after he finally negotiated the back nine without too much spillage, carding a 70 to sit just three off the lead along side American Dustin Johnson and Englishman Danny Willett.

“When you consider some of the positions he is playing in from compared to where I was, it was unbelievable. If I think back to 10, I had 120 yards to the pin and he was at least 60, maybe 80 yards behind me. He plods along and knows his strengths and weaknesses. I had a lot of fun playing with him.

“I could tell how gritty he is and how much of a competitor he is. He is a true professional in that regard and I know that he really wants to compete and try to win this thing tomorrow, but then so do I.”

The 80th Masters is being played in Open Championship conditions. Well, the sort of windy test, anyway, that we’re more likely to see in July on a rugged links course on the R&A’s rota rather than the immaculately-manicured layout here at Augusta National in April.

It merely added spice to a much-anticated toe-to-toe fight between two of the game’s heavyweights - defending champion and world No 2 Spieth andMcIlroy, third-ranked and bidding to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in accomplishing a career Grand Slam.

Spieth is one of the best putters to grace the game. Perhaps it’s because he often turns up on the practice green three hours before his tee-off time, as he did on this occasion. By the time the pair had finished their preparations, patrons were lined up to greet them on the walk from the clubhouse to the tee. It was a bit like we see now at darts events but without the music and dolly birds.

First to make that journey, Spieth did so as fellow Texan Ben Crenshaw, a two-time champion, chatted to some people a few feet away in the sunshine. When McIlroy eventually appeared a few minutes later, he was cluthing a bottle of water - Masters-branded, of course, and looked nice and relaxed. Nothing different there, then.

Both sporting grey tops, Spieth and McIlroy enjoyed an equally warm welcome on to the first tee. These patrons are fair-minded, remember. When the pair are in this same position elsewhere in the future, especially over here, the rank-and-file fans will be a lot more raucous in Spieth’s favour. First to hit, the wind whipped up again as Spieth was just about to pull the trigger. Based on the two drives, McIlroy struck the first psychological blow by knocking it almost 30 yards further. Both, though, made two-putt pars.

It would be wrong - way wrong, in fact - to say that Spieth has done so well round here because he’s lucky. There were definitely times in his opening 66, though, that he enjoyed some breaks. Notably when a pulled tee shot at the 10th went unpunished. The same shot left him looking anxiously from the second tee but, again, the end result wasn’t bad. From 255 yards, he safely steered a shot on to the green. A two-putt birdie doubled his lead after McIlroy, having been bunkered with his drive, failed to covert a nine-footer.

The gap then became three shots as Spieth enjoyed a huge slice of luck at the par-4 third. His drive was wild into trees on the right. He not only had a decent stance close to a tree but had a gap too, allowing him to make par. Bunkered again, McIlroy’s approach spun back off the green. It left him with a nasty chip, leading to a 5.

While less dramatic-looking than either the 12th or 16th, the fourth, the first of the par-3s on this course, is an absolute brute at 240 yards. It had cost McIlroy three shots on the first two days. Both players hit the spectator stand with badly pulled tee shots that ended up close together just off the green after getting favourable bounces. Spieth’s par was the better of the two as all that pratice putting helped him convert an eight-footer.

The wind was causing problems elsewhere. Up ahead at the 15th, Billy Horschel has just replaced his ball on the green when it was caught by a gust and ended up in the water. Horschel couldn’t believe his eyes. This is Augusta, son. It’s where the unexpected often happens.

In Friday’s smilarly blustery conditions, it had been the first time in this event in nine years that no-one had managed to break 70. When the leaders teed off, a one-under-par 71 from South African Louis Oosthuizen was the best early score that had been posted. Day, the world No 1, had his sights on improving on that.

Much had been made of McIlroy’s putting in the build up to this event. It’s certainly not as good as Spieth’s and led the four-time major winner to switch to a left-below-right grip. He’d got the pace of these greens nicely, though, based on a 58-foot birdie attempt at the fifth that shaved the hole. From exactly half that distance, McIlroy then three-putted the seventh. Spieth, having pushed his drive, also signed for 5 there - his first blip of the day. Psychologically, that must have been a hammer blow for McIlroy.

Spieth made his second birdie of the day at the par-5 eighth following a splendid 102-yard third shot that ended up four feet from the hole. Bunkered once again with his drive, McIlroy was unable to match that. A par to close out the nine meant he headed into the back nine still seeking his first birdie of the day. Spieth, an impressive winner 12 months ago after finishing second on his debut in 2014, looked to have this one in control again. Day and Langer, though, were determined not to let the American get it his own way.

It went from bad to worse for McIlroy at the start of the back nine. A pulled tee shot almost buried itself in a bush at the tenth. It still led to a bogey, though. He was in trouble on the left again from the 11th tee. It was a rash and stupid decision to try and go for the green with a low hook. Inevitably, it ended up wet. It cost him a double-bogey. The only consolation was that Spieth also ran up a 6 after taking four shots to get down from just off the side of the green.

His response was, well, typical Jordan Spieth. In went a 17-foot birdie putt at the short 12th. From much closer, McIlroy missed for his 2. Still no birdies. Spieth carded fourth by converting from seven feet at the 14th. His approach there was exquisite. The gain put him seven shots ahead of his playing partner. McIlroy’s body language by this point told its own story. The day had simply slipped away from him.

It didn’t help him that Spieth, having struggled a bit with his game early on, was now firing on all cylinders. When he read the break on a ten-foot birdie putt to perfection at the 15th, it was another time you found yourself thinking he’d played this course for 30 years, not three!

Having let the chasing pack get close following that blip at the 11th, he was now four in front. Just when it looked as though Matsuyama was a real danger, he dropped shots at the 16th and 17th. A par at the last saw him sign for a 72.

By then, Kaufman had posted his eye-catching effort. It was the first sub-70 score since Thursday. The 24-year-old from Alabama secured his breakthrough win on the PGA Tour towards the end of last year.

It helped clinch his debut in this event. First-timers shouldn’t really be coming here and getting in the mix. Spieth, though, seems to have changed that trend forever with his second-place two years ago. These young Americans seem totally fearless on the game’s big stages.

Standing on the 17th tee, Spieth was set to go into the final round with a cushion. He later admitted he’d made a mistake taking driver there. It was pushed into the trees and cost him a bogey. Right again at the last, he managed to squeeze his recovery through a gap to get it close to the green. His pitch was poor, though, and for once that putter couldn’t get him out of jail. A second-double bogey in eight holes raised the hopes of many in the chasing pack.

McIlroy’s finish summed up his day. The approach to the 18th was his best shot of the day. He couldn’t convert the birdie putt from nine feet, though, and the frustration was etched all over his face.

He still has an chance. You get the feeling, though, that this all still comes down to Spieth and not anyone else.

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