AUGUSTA (Georgia) • The "Jordan and Rory" show was the hottest ticket at the Masters on Saturday with the defending champion and a four-time Major winner paired together for the third round but it failed to live up to its billing.
American world No. 2 Jordan Spieth largely fulfilled his side of the bargain as he retained a one-shot lead in the year's opening Major, but Rory McIlroy struggled to find any spark on a brutal day for scoring in strong gusting winds.
Watched by huge galleries at Augusta National, Spieth and the third-ranked Northern Irishman generated plenty of buzz when they teed off.
But, by the time they finished in the Georgian twilight, there was a palpable sense of anti-climax.
Spieth remained on top of the Masters leader board for a record-extending seventh consecutive round after battling to a one-over 73, dropping three shots on the last two holes to leave his fans groaning in disappointment.
A HARD DAY'S WORK
I would be feeling a lot worse about myself if I hadn't just seen what Jordan did the last two holes.
RORY MCILROY, on his five-over 77 third round at the Masters.
It was a really tough finish to go from holding a four-shot lead... it's tough to swallow that. But I'm in the lead after 54 holes.
JORDAN SPIETH, on his bogey-double bogey in the last two holes of his third round.
McIlroy, bidding to complete a career Grand Slam of the four Majors, failed to register a single birdie as he struggled to a five-over 77 leaving him five strokes off the pace.
"Just one of those days," he 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."
While McIlroy mainly struggled, Spieth produced his usual blend of brilliant putting, mental strength and patience as he mixed two birdies with a bogey to reach the turn with a three-stroke cushion.
A double-bogey at the tricky 11th, where he missed the green to the right with his approach and ended up three-putting, sent groans through the gallery. But he quickly rebounded with birdies at the 12th, 14th and 15th to forge four shots clear.
"I played better than I scored today," Spieth said after ending his round with a bogey on 17 and a double at the last.
"It was a really tough finish to go from holding a four-shot lead... it's tough to swallow that.
"But I'm in the lead after 54 holes. If you told me that at the beginning of the week, I'd be obviously very pleased."
MASTERS ROUND 3
Par-72 Augusta National (Selected, USA unless stated)
213 Jordan Spieth 66 74 73
214 Smylie Kaufman 73 72 69
215 Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn) 71 72 72, Bernhard Langer (Ger) 72 73 70.
216 Jason Day (Aus) 72 73 71, Dustin Johnson 73 71 72, Danny Willett (Eng) 70 74 72.
217 Lee Westwood (Eng) 71 75 71, Brandt Snedeker 71 72 74, Soren Kjeldsen (Den) 69 74 74.
218 Daniel Berger 73 71 74, Rory McIlroy (Nir) 70 71 77.
219 Justin Rose (Eng) 69 77 73, J.B. Holmes 72 73 74, Angel Cabrera (Arg) 73 73 73.
223 Adam Scott (Aus) 76 72 75.
225 Sergio García (Esp) 69 75 81, Henrik Stenson (Swe) 72 75 78.
An 80th Masters that had looked ready to turn into a coronation will instead be up for grabs this morning (Singapore time).
An eclectic mix of challengers includes a Masters debutant, a 58-year-old former champion and a 24-year-old Japanese sensation.
American rookie Smylie Kaufman had the lowest round of the day, returning a 69 to join Spieth in an unlikely final pairing.
Sitting a further shot adrift is evergreen German Bernhard Langer, a two-time Masters winner who showed that experience helps around a tricky Augusta layout, carding a 70. And Hideki Matsuyama, playing in his fifth Masters, had a 72.
World No. 1 Jason Day, the pre-Masters favourite who struggled to find consistent form through the early rounds, finally emerged as a contender as he rocketed up the leader board with a 71 to finish three shots off the pace.
The Australian was pushed in his round by his playing partner Langer, who is making his 33rd Masters appearance.
"To be able to be a 58-year-old man, be competitive with us, and want it as much as he did 40 years ago is pretty impressive," said Day, who thought he had gotten the better of Langer on the 14th when he drained a 60-yard putt for a birdie.
Langer responded by chipping in for a birdie.
"It just goes to show how competitive he is," added Day, who took one stroke more to get around Augusta despite outdriving Langer by as much as 60 yards.
The key - Langer had 27 putts. To put that statistic into perspective, Spieth - arguably the best putter in the world - had 30 putts, which he considered the bright spot on Saturday.
A day later, Langer could become the oldest Major winner in history, more than a decade beyond the record age mark of Julius Boros at 48 from the 1968 PGA Championship and the oldest Masters winner, Jack Nicklaus at 46 in 1986.
"It would be one for the old guys," he said.
REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE