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

augusta national

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk