Jordan Spieth stumbled but ultimately survived the stern test offered Saturday by Augusta National Golf Club.
Rory McIlroy stumbled and fell.
Smylie Kaufman, Bernhard Langer and Hideki Matsuyama flourished.
That’s the kind of day it was at The Masters. There was movement in every direction – up, down and sideways – and when Sunday’s final round begins, Spieth – the defending champion – will stride onto the first tee with a one-stroke lead over Kaufman.
Spieth blocked drives into the trees on hole Nos. 17 and 18 to finish bogey, double-bogey and shoot 73. He’s at 3-under 213 through 54 holes.
McIlroy, in the final pairing with Spieth on Saturday, made no birdies while shooting 77. He is tied for 11th at 2-over 218. The anticipated Spieth/McIlroy showdown never materialized. However, Spieth’s late slip leaves McIlroy among 11 golfers within five strokes of the lead.
Kaufman posted the lowest round of the day, a 69, and is at 2-under 214. It was the first sub-70 score since Thursday’s opening round.
Langer (70) and Matsuyama (72) are tied for third at 215. Langer’s round featured six birdies. Only those four players are under par as the swirling breezes, although not quite as strong as had been anticipated, remained relentlessly challenging.
Top-ranked Jason Day (71), Dustin Johnson and Danny Willett (72) share fifth at 216.
Despite a double-bogey six at the 11th hole, Spieth regained his bearings and picked up three strokes over the next four holes, only to give it all back in a stunning sequence.
‘Now it’s anyone’s game,’ Spieth said. ‘That’s tough to swallow.’
‘It will be tough to put it behind. I think I will. It’s not going to be fun tonight for a little while. Hopefully I sleep it off.’
The fact that he has now led the Masters after seven consecutive rounds is little consolation. He’s lamenting what might have been.
‘I climbed back nicely on the back nine, 2-under (for the round),’ he said. ‘We were rolling at that point with three holes to go, with the wind at your side. Figure par-par-par … just got wayward with the ball from there.
‘I’ve just got to absolutely throw away the finish to this round and pretend it’s a new round and everyone is tied and shoot the best round you can (Sunday).’
The top four on the leader board includes the 22-year-old Spieth, who is attempting to become only the fourth golfer to win the Masters in back-to-back years, a pair of 24-year-olds in Kaufman and Matsuyama and the 58-year-old Langer, a two-time Masters champion.
Only Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Tiger Woods (2001-02) have won the Masters in successive years.
McIlroy echoed sentiments similar to Spieth.
“Just one of those days,” McIlroy said. “You have to try to forget about it and move on.
“To be honest with you, I would be feeling a lot worse about myself if I hadn’t just seen what Jordan did the last two holes. I sort of take a bit of heart from that, that I’m still in this golf Tournament.”
McIlroy said he will play aggressively Sunday.
“Standing on 17 tee, I was eight back,’ he said. ‘But it just shows you how fast things can happen on this golf course, especially when the conditions are like they are. The winds might not be quite as strong tomorrow, but the greens are still firm, they’re crusty, you miss it on the wrong side and you’re making life very difficult on yourself.
‘I’ve got nothing to lose. Today was my bad day, and hopefully I can go out there and make up for the lack of birdies today.’
Langer won the Masters in 1985, in his third appearance at Augusta National, and again in 1993 – both coming before Spieth was born on July 27, 1993. Langer’s only other PGA Tour victory is the 1985 Verizon Heritage.
He has spent much of the past nine seasons on PGA Tour Champions where he has been the dominant player with 26 victories since 2007. In 2014, he tied for eighth in the Masters, his ninth top-10 in 32 Tournaments.
Langer’s contentious relationship with putting has been well documented. He’s endured the yips throughout his career, three times coming out of it to win again. This year, he continues to use a broomhandle putter, but because of the ban on anchoring, Langer does not attach it to his chest.
He began this week’s Masters ranked No. 1,080 in the Official World Golf Ranking. In 1986, Langer became the original No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. At Augusta National, he is bidding to become the oldest ever to win a major by 10 years. Julius Boros won the PGA Championship at age 48 in 1968 by holding off Arnold Palmer, the four-time Masters champion.
‘For a 58-year-old, it’s fun to be in this position with the best in the world,’ he said.