For a while Friday, it looked as if there would be no stopping Jordan Spieth. Not after birdies on two of his first three holes. Not after he opened a four-shot lead with another at the eighth. And then, gusting winds whistling through the tall pines and treacherous pin positions all around Augusta National began to take their toll on the defending Masters champion.
Suddenly, a possible runaway for the 22-year-old Dallas native was no longer a possibility, especially with a resurgent Rory McIlroy pushing back into contention with some gritty play on the back nine. Spieth, meanwhile, bogeyed two of his last three holes, and needed a difficult 15-foot putt at the 18th to save par and shot a 2-over-par 74 and allow him to keep a one-shot lead over the 26-year-old Irishman at 4-under.
And now, Spieth No. 2 in the world rankings, and McIlroy No. 3, will be paired in the final twosome Saturday afternoon. The same difficult winds are expected, along with even more difficult drying-out, warp-speed greens to contend with in what surely will be a rousing weekend at this already riveting 80th Masters.
“It’ll be a fun round,” Spieth said about 30 minutes after he walked off the course, adding that he and McIlroy “enjoy playing together. We’ve both played well, both played poorly. He’s a great player and a lot of fun to be around.”
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Said McIlroy: “He seems to love this golf course and loves this place. … I don’t look at who is on the left [of the leaderboard]. I look at the numbers on the right to see how many I’m back. I just want to finish one better then they do. It doesn’t make a difference who it is. I’ve been in this position before, and I know what it takes to win golf tournaments.”
So does Spieth, with two major titles and five overall victories in 2015.
And this day, he also could take some consolation in clinging to the top spot, a record sixth consecutive time he has led the Masters since he opened with a 64 in the first round of the 2015 tournament on his way to a wire-to-wire victory. His 66 Thursday gave him a two-shot lead, now down to the one-stroke edge he will take to the first tee on Saturday over McIlroy, a four-time major winner trying to achieve a career Grand Slam with a victory in each of the four majors.
Spieth held on to the lead despite shooting 2-over on a day of brutal conditions and course setup. It marked the first time in ten career Masters starts that he failed to shoot par or better. McIlroy, with three birdies in his final six holes, including the short par 5s at 13 and 15, had a 1-under 71 and is 3-under.
South Korean Danny Lee, who started his second round only two behind Spieth, stayed that close again with a 74 and 2-under 142, despite making bogeys on his final two holes. And American Scott Piercy added a 72 to his opening-round 70 to tie Lee for third place. Only seven players are under par after 36 holes, and 22 are within five shots of the lead, including Jason Day, No. 1 in the world rankings, at 1-over 145 after a 73.
One of them should have been closer. That would be 22-year-old California cool Bryson DeChambeau, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion playing in his first Masters with great confidence.
Paired with Spieth over the first two rounds, he actually walked to the 18th tee trailing his playing partner by a single shot. It didn’t last.
He dead pulled his drive at the 465-yard finishing hole into a holly bush, had to take an unplayable lie and then made a triple-bogey 7. With a par, it would have been a swell 69, the low score of the day. Instead, he settled for his second 72 in a row for an even-par 144 but took some solace knowing he was still only four behind.
“I’m ready to go out and do my best [Saturday],” he said. “Today, that’s enough. I can’t control that. I should have been big enough to hit the crank ball and hit it way down there.
“I just pulled it and that’s all it is. Nothing more. … It was great day. I shot even par under tough conditions, and I’m looking forward to [Saturday.”
Others were not. Phil Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion whose game usually peaks here, had the worst round of his 24 appearances, a 7-over 79 and a missed cut, a year after he tied for second. And Rickie Fowler, No. 5 in the world, also was heading out Magnolia Lane, the victim of a first-round 80 and 9-over 297 total.
Spieth, on the other hand, said he kept his poise by telling himself that “par is a good score. What’s really hard is the two-footers you have to hit after you just barely miss your first putt. The greens are so fast, and with the gusting winds in both directions … it can throw a two-footer at this green speed almost out of the hole.”
With more of the same expected Saturday. What fun.
1. Jordan Spieth
2. Rory McIlroy
T3. Danny Lee
T3. Scott Piercy
T5. Brandt Snedeker
T5. Soren Kjeldsen
T5. H. Matsuyama
Six tied at even par
▪ Scores, tee times, 3B
▪ Tom Watson plays his final round at Augusta, 3B