AUGUSTA, Ga. – One was supposedly better from tee to green, the other superior around the greens. One was eying a career grand slam, the other a successful title defense. The pairing of world No. 3 Rory McIlroy and No. 2 Jordan Spieth in round three of the Masters was so enticing as to invite comparisons to Batman versus Superman.
But for the third straight day swirling winds at Augusta National kept nearly all would-be superheroes on their heels. Their failures were just a matter of degree. McIlroy (77) was lost, and Spieth finished terribly to shoot 73 and go into Sunday a stroke ahead of Smylie Kaufman (69) and two ahead of 58-year-old Bernhard Langer (70) and Hideki Matsuyama (72).
“Probably go break something real quick, grab some dinner and watch a movie,” Spieth said, when asked what he’ll do to clear his head after his bogey-double bogey finish, which brought several players back into the mix.
World No. 1 Jason Day (71), Dustin Johnson (72) and Danny Willett (72) are at even par, lurking just three shots off the lead.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Day said long before Spieth’s late stumble bunched the leaderboard. “I mean Sundays at Augusta is a different story.”
McIlroy didn’t make a birdie, even botching a six-foot try on 18. He went from second place, just one behind, to tied for 11th place, five shots back entering Sunday’s final round. “One of those days,” he said. “You have to try to forget about it and move on. I would be feeling a lot worse about myself if I hadn’t have just seen what Jordan did the last two holes.”
Indeed, the complexion of the tournament changed drastically in the last 40 minutes. Spieth made five birdies and at six under par held a four-shot lead with two holes to go, but sprayed drives into the trees on 17 and 18. He went into Sunday with a four-stroke lead in 2015, but now is just one ahead.
“Now it’s anyone’s game, so it’s tough to swallow that,” he said. However, he added: “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. So it's mixed feelings right now.”
Spieth hit eight fairways and 10 greens, tying his worst numbers of the week in those categories, but that wasn’t what hurt him. Unlike many of his rounds over the last year-plus he couldn’t keep the big numbers off his card, making double bogeys on 11 and 18 despite taking no penalty strokes.
With so much firepower in the day’s marquee group almost no one was paying any mind to Langer, who won his two Masters in 1985 and ’93, before Spieth was born. But he birdied three straight holes on the back nine and saved bogey at 18 to go into Sunday just two behind. In so doing he stirred up memories of Jack Nicklaus, then 58 years old, charging at the ’98 Masters.
“I made a couple of putts,” Langer said, “and just played smart—aggressive‑smart, if you can be aggressive hitting hybrids into these greens.”
Kaufman is a guileless 24-year-old who joined the Tour’s elite when he won the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open last fall. He still lives with his parents. At the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in January, he was signing autographs when a fan said he’d seen Kaufman on their flight over.
“That was my first time flying first class!” Kaufman said.
It was survival, though, not ebullience that ruled the day. Spieth seethed at his bump-and-clunk finish, but he wasn’t alone. Augusta was again brutally difficult, giving up just five under-par rounds. The third-round scoring average of 75.719 was even higher than it was in round two (75.022).
Bill Haas asked Larry Mize if he’d ever seen three straight days with so much wind in his 32 Masters. Mize hadn’t. Kevin Kisner and Justin Thomas, hopelessly behind, stoked their flagging interest with a side bet on 18. “I’ve never been as ready to be done as I am right now,” Kisner said after shooting a hard-fought 76. “I’m glad I can’t make any more bogeys.”
Kevin Na, who started the day with an outside chance at 2 over par, shot 85. French amateur Romain Langasque had nine 5s in his card; sadly, only one of them was for par as he shot 83. Sacre bleu!
How hard was it? Matt Kuchar three-putted three times on the front nine, but after fighting back for an even-par 72 said, “I played some amazing golf.” Asked about his 71, Louis Oosthuizen said, “Probably feels like 66.”
More than ever, Spieth now has to play the same kind of mind game in order to go into Sunday in a positive frame of mind. He’ll have to unearth whatever it was that led to his wayward driving on the back nine. And he’ll have to forget that he just gave the field, even McIlroy, a second life.