Reporting from Augusta, Ga.
Tiger Woods stood motionless over his ball, set to coil back and strike a shot toward Augusta National’s 18th green when a joyous roar from behind sliced into his concentration.
Woods backed away. Hey, it happens in the cathedral of sound that comes alive on a Masters weekend. Since taking the place by storm 14 years ago, though, Woods so often was the one who caused others to back off their shots.
On Saturday, it was another fresh face bringing the noise.
Rory McIlroy, 21, threw down birdies on three of his final six holes, sending a charge through an otherwise dreary afternoon to grab a four-shot lead that might just be worth a new green jacket.
“I know I’ll have to play some very good golf to try to finish it off,” McIlroy said after completing a two-under-par 70 against a testy course setup. “But if I keep doing what I’m doing, I feel good about my chances.”
The Northern Ireland lad briefly lost the lead to Jason Day midway through Saturday’s front nine, but battled back to become one of only two players to break par from the final five groups. K.J. Choi scraped around a 71 to join a four-way tie for second.
The day ended with McIlroy at 12-under 204, matching Lee Westwood’s performance last year for the lowest three-round score since Woods cruised to his mind-blowing 1997 triumph. Choi was joined at eight under by Day (72), South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel (68) and 2009 champion Angel Cabrera (67).
Cabrera drew the final Sunday pairing with McIlroy – a not-so-trivial position when 19 of the last 20 winners have come from the final pairing. The lone exception in that stretch was Zach Johnson’s 2007 triumph.
“The young kids are playing very well,” Cabrera said. “I think they deserve [the praise] – Rory, Jason. But obviously I have won the Masters, so that should help me a lot.”
Australia’s Adam Scott (67) and England’s Luke Donald (69) were another stroke off the pace. Bo Van Pelt came in as the top American, posting a 68 to reach six under.
Woods, who began the day three shots behind McIlroy, stumbled to a 74 as he once again stood at odds with his putting. One day after carding his lowest Masters round since his 2005 victory, he produced his highest in the last four editions.
Trying to end a 17-month winless streak, Woods three-putted a pair of greens on Saturday to fall seven off the pace.
“I just hit a lot of beautiful putts that didn’t go in,” said Woods, repeating a mantra heard since the Florida Swing. “Could have easily been three- or four- or five-under par.”
They’ll all be chasing a youngster branded the game’s next superstar since turning pro 3 1/2 years ago. Though McIlroy wouldn’t eclipse Woods as the Masters’ youngest champion – he’s almost eight months older – he’s dealt with similar expectations.
And the Ulsterman has come close during that time, too – notching three third-place finishes in his last five majors.
“Rory’s contended so many times in these big events,” Scott said. “He’s really incredible.”
McIlroy was only middling through two-thirds of Saturday’s round, dropping to nine under when he couldn’t save par from off the green at the 10th hole. But he took care of business with birdies at the back nine’s two par-fives – Nos. 13 and 15 – then set off a bigger noise when he drained a 30-foot birdie at the 17th.
“Going into the weekend of a major with the lead was something new to me,” said McIlroy, who has held at least a share of the lead through all three rounds. “It took me a few holes to find my feet out there.
“I’ve controlled myself well this week, and I hope to do it again.”