Once the dust had settled, defending champion Jordan Spieth was still in the lead. Only just, though, and he now has Rory McIlroy breathing down his neck. Separated by just a shot, the pair will go out in the last group in the third round. It’s the sort of showdown we were hoping for at the start of the 2016 major campaign.
Two ahead overnight, Spieth’s lead was up to six shots at one point. He’d made a “dream start” by picking up birdies at the first and third, moving him to eight-under. He finally looked human on this course, though, after four-putting the fifth for a double-bogey. Like everyone else, it became a struggle for the 22-year-old Texan thereafter.
He became rattled after his group had been put on the clock in Amen Corner. Bogeys at the 16th and 17th saw his lead whittled away. It took a great up and down from sand at the last to keep his nose in front at the halfway stage. “I’m still in the lead,” said Spieth of a position he’s become accustomed to occupying here.
His two-over 74 was the first time in 10 rounds here that he’d strayed over par. The conditions contributed to that. “Boy, that golf course changed very much throughout the day today,” he added. “We were trying to adjust with ever‑gusting and changing winds. It just was a really difficult day to score.”
What tomorrow brings weather-wise remains to be seen. Only snow - and there’s no chance of that, of course - would dampen the excitement of Spieth and McIlroy going head-to-head.
“We played the first two rounds together here two years ago and it will be a fun round tomorrow,” admitted Spieth. “It’s exciting to play with Rory. He’s a great player and a lot of fun to be around. We enjoy playing with each other and both seem to be on our games right now.”
Moving day had come early for the morning second-round starters. Spieth had seen to that after he’d come hurtling out of the blocks with his six-under-par 66 on the opening circuit at Augusta National. It meant the likes of McIlroy and Jason Day really needed to get their fingers out before the defending champion returned to the fray in the afternoon.
Day, the world No 1, didn’t really do enough to haul himself into the picture heading into the weekend, but McIlroy certainly did. It was a bit of a struggle for the player bidding to become just the sixth man to complete golf’s career Grand Slam, but then everyone, including Spieth, had their work cut out in a blustery wind.
Helped by three birdies in the last six holes, McIlroy signed for a one-under 71. “You just have to look at the scores to see how tough it was out there,” said the world No 3. “You are going to be very happy with anything under in that wind and some of the pin positions and I’m in a good position going into the weekend.”
Third-ranked McIlroy had some good early momentum - nack-to-back birdies at the second and third - halted by a double-bogey 5 at the fourth. It may be a par-4 but measures 240 yards. It’s a brute. Bunkered with his tee shot, the Northern Irishman three-putted from 20 feet, missing from seven feet with the second one. Yet, his pace-putting had been spot on two holes earlier.
Earlier in the week, the four-time major winner said he’d come up with a new strategy for the par-5 second, which was hitting a 3-wood to stay short of the bunker at the top of the hill. With the wind helping, out came the driver. He boomed one 350 yards, leaving an iron into the green at the 575-yarder. The two-putt from long range constituted a nice start, especially after he’d displayed a lovely touch to save par after missing the green on the right at the first. A six-footer was than despatched for a birdie at the third only for the good work to soon be undone. The double was followed by bogeys at the fifth and the 11th before he burst into life again. Just as pleasing as birdies at the 13th, 15th and 16th, where he holed from close to 40 feet, was a great par save from the trees at the last.
“I got off to a fast start and that was important,” he admitted. “After then dropping some shots, I knew I needed to stay patient and try to birdie the par-5s on the back nine. The putt at the 16th was a bonus while it was a great up and down at the last. I’m definitely feeling better right now than I did when I finished yesterday (after dropping two shots in the last three holes).”
McIlroy, of course, had one arm in a Green Jacket after taking a four-shot lead into the final round only to capitulate with an 80, opening the door for South African Charl Schwartzel to claim the coveted coat. “I sort of feel that Augusta owes me something and I have come with that attitude,” he declared. “I have come here to get something that I should have had a long time ago. You need to be so focussed and in control of your emotions here. It’s about not getting fazed and mentally I have been good the last couple of days. I need to keep that going for the next two days.”
Eight behind after beginning with a bogey, Day was also starting to build up a head of steam as he turned for home just four off the pace. Then it began to go wrong for players who came into this event sitting either side of Spieth in the world rankings.
Day, the world No 1, let shots slip at the 11th and 13th. The back nine has not exactly been his friend so far this week. Out in five-under 31, on Thursday, the 28-year-old Australian went from breathing down Spieth’s neck to sitting in the pack after going 6-6-5 from the 15th.
After finishing with a bogey, Day signed for a 73 for a one-over-par halfway total. He’s seven-under for the front nine; eight-over for the back. “It’s no good,” he said of the latter before giving in insight into how difficult the overall challenge was proving due to the blustery conditions.
“There’s not too many times where I’m standing on a golf course and you have to aim a putt for wind,” added Day. “That tells you how gusty it is in some parts, then on other parts when you’re kind of hidden and don’t feel it at all. It’s really hard to commit to a lot of the golf shots out there and you got to be very mentally strong to be able to do that. Hopefully I can get the back side like the front side. If I can do that then I can kind of start leap‑frogging some guys.”
While all eyes will undoubtedly be on Spieth and McIlroy, New Zealand’s Danny Lee and American Scott Piercy are ready to pounce if the two players at the top of the leaderboard cancel each other out, as can often happen in these sort of situations. Just ask Paul Lawrie and Marc Warren after they sat close to the lead at the same stage in last year’s Open Championship at St Andrews only to mis-fire when they were paired together in the third round.
Lee and Piercy are just two shots off the lead, followed by American Brandt Snedeker, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and Dane Soren Kjeldsen. How tough the test has proved so far is shown by the fact only eight players are sitting below par.
Seven are on level-par, including Irishman Shane Lowry, Spaniard Sergio Garcia and American amateur Bryson DeChambeau, who was just one off the lead playing the last before running up a quadruple bogey-7.
The 22-year-old, in fact, had got to four-under for the tournament with three to play, but, refreshingly, he refused to let a disappointing finish wipe the smile from his face. “It’s disappointing factor, but that’s golf,” he said. “You’ve got to learn from that and play your best tomorrow.”
He has a battle on his hands to finish as leading amateur as Frenchman Romain Langasque, the Amateur champion, is just three shot back after a second-round 74 that included an eagle-3 at the 15th.
Two-time winner Bubba Watson only scraped into the final two rounds courtesy of a 10-shot rule, having looked certain to miss his first cut here until Spieth started to come back to the pack.
But the casualty list included Phil Mickelson, Charl Schwartzel, Branden Grace, Zach Johnson, Ernie Els, Graeme MvDowell, Rickie Fowler and Jason Dufner.
Mickelson, a three-time winner here, was one-under for the tournament after six holes before spilling 10 shots thereafter. His 79 was the left-hander’s worst score in 90 rounds in this event. Open champion and 2007 winner Johnson also suffered a sore exit after he was hit with a two-shot penalty for brushing the water with his backswing at the 13th. It cost him an 80.
Third-round tee times
(USA unless stated, all times local, x denotes amateur)
0950 Bubba Watson
1000 Justin Thomas, Kevin Kisner
1010 Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Patrick Reed
1020 Victor Dubuisson (Fra), Webb Simpson
1030 Bill Haas, Larry Mize
1040 Anirban Lahiri (Ind), Martin Kaymer (Ger)
1050 Charley Hoffman, Adam Scott (Aus)
1100 Matt Kuchar, Thongchai Jaidee (Tha)
1110 Henrik Stenson (Swe), Hunter Mahan
1120 Romain Langasque (a) (Fra), Harris English
1140 Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Spa), Ian Poulter (Eng)
1150 Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng), Keegan Bradley
1200 Cameron Smith (Aus), Billy Horschel
1210 Justin Rose (Eng), Jamie Donaldson (Wal)
1220 Emiliano Grillo (Arg), Kevin Na
1230 Lee Westwood (Eng), Paul Casey (Eng)
1240 Angel Cabrera (Arg), Kevin Streelman
1250 Davis Love III, Jimmy Walker
1300 Chris Wood (Eng), Brooks Koepka
1310 J.B. Holmes, Bernd Wiesberger (Aut)
1330 Bernhard Langer (Ger), Jason Day (Aus)
1340 Troy Merritt, Smylie Kaufman
1350 Dustin Johnson, Daniel Berger
1400 Shane Lowry (Irl), Bryson De Chambeau (a)
1410 Daniel Willett (Eng), Sergio Garcia (Spa)
1420 Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Kiradech Aphibarnrat (Tha)
1430 Brandt Snedeker, Soren Kjeldsen (Den)
1440 Danny Lee (Nzl), Scott Piercy
1450 Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy (Nirl)