The Master 2014: Rory McIlroy slide gathers pace as Bubba Watson also falters

Thrilling final day in prospect as field bunches up behind nervous leader

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The Independent Online

And he thought it couldn't get any worse. Rory McIlroy, first man out on Saturday playing with a marker, loses by a stroke to a guy who isn't even in the tournament. That's a headline he could have done without. Only one card counted, and it came in under par at 71 courtesy of three birdies over the closing four holes, but that did not stop the Masters telegraph humming with news of McIlroy's mortification.

It might perhaps be a comfort to recall that his victorious playing partner, Augusta National member Jefferson Knox, went round with Bubba Watson on the Saturday of last year's tournament. Watson was defending champion, and, like McIlroy this year, limped into the weekend on the number, a lost soul at the rag end of proceedings.

Yesterday, long after McIlroy was done, Watson went out in the final group, the overnight leader by three strokes transformed into a contender again. Though outwardly their differences are marked, Watson and McIlroy share a delicate psyche that not even they fully comprehend.

The responsibilities of leadership were clearly playing on Watson's mind. Though he eagled the second, bogeys at the first, fourth, sixth and seventh brought him back to the field. When he crunched his drive up the eighth his lead was down to one. By the end his lead was shared on five under par with the remarkable 20-year-old from Georgia, Jordan Spieth.

What must McIlroy be thinking having toyed with Spieth off the tee for two days? McIlroy was the favourite to win here, a golfer so outrageously gifted it does not seem fair that he starts from the same tee. Yet here he was in Saturday's graveyard slot, schooled on the greens by a club golfer.

It was the same tale the day before. Spieth regularly saw McIlroy walk on in advance of his own drive to a spot 50 metres or more down the fairway. That's three club lengths to you and me, making the approach to the green notionally simpler. Yet time and again on the back nine McIlroy butchered his chances with either poor club selection or rotten execution. Spieth made more from less, ending the day seven shots better than McIlroy.

For whatever reason, McIlroy seems unable to break a negative cycle. The mental mechanism by which great competitors wrestle momentum back in their favour is not a strength that McIlroy has. Yesterday's reverse is neither here nor there, but Friday's regression was.

"Jeff is a great player," McIlory said. "I thought he was going to be nice and three-putt the last and we would have a half, but he beat me by one. He obviously knows this place so well and gets it round. I don't think I've ever seen anyone putt the greens as well as he does around here. He was really impressive. I was thinking of maybe getting him to read a few of my putts out there."

It must drive McIlroy to distraction to see lesser beings engineering better outcomes. He needs a Roy Keane in his head, or on his bag, someone to stiffen resolve in moments of difficulty. But first he needs to acknowledge that there is a problem to fix. He pledged to return today to fashion his best Masters finish, tied 15th three years ago, without convincing that he might.

To walk with Knox to the first tee was a kind of ritual humiliation for McIlroy. It was not supposed to be like this. He was perfectly civil of course but this is not what Masters dreams are made of. McIlroy was reduced to Masters curiosity when he came to challenge for the win. His drive at the first was imperious, tracing a fearsome trajectory beneath an indigo sky. He birdied the second, but gave it straight back at the third, a careless approach perfectly reflecting his level of engagement.

Two more would follow at seven and at ten, where it all began to unravel on Friday. After 13 holes McIlroy was three shots adrift of Knox. The mood lifted in the run to lunch with McIlroy knocking in three birdies over the closing four holes easy as you like to finish three over par. Again they were not delivered in pursuit of victory but perfunctorily to fulfil an obligation to play.

Watson's retreat at the top of the leaderboard after briefly leading by five met the tournament demand for excitement. Miguel Angel Jimenez and Ricky Fowler were already in the clubhouse on three under par after rounds of 66 and 67 respectively. And out of the margins marched our own Lee Westwood, who closed one back on two under par.

Westwood is the most consistent performer in the field with a second, third and eighth in the previous four visits.

Indeed 11th is his worst finish in that period so to see him shove his nose in the trough ought not to surprise. He starts today knowing he's in it. "Anywhere within five, even six shots of the lead going into the final round of the Masters is given a good chance," he said.

Justin Rose enjoyed a better day, his 69 leaving him on the fringe of contention on one under par, one shot clear of Ian Poulter, who was left frustrated with is round of 70: "Four under for the day and cruising. I made a couple of mistakes on the back nine so I'm disgusted with my round of golf. As good as it is on the leaderboard, I'm not happy."

Today will be worth a watch: Speith could even break Tiger Woods' record as the youngest Masters champion.