AUGUSTA, Ga. — The temperature reached 88 degrees with high humidity at Augusta National on Saturday. It was the kind of weather that puts the fire in this course, and which combined with the importance of the occasion could easily have melted a fair, young lad from Northern Ireland.
Rory McIlroy is an old 21, though. He's won in Dubai, and in Charlotte, N.C., and contended in majors. He's tasted the heat. McIlroy kept the bounce in his step for the third straight day at Augusta, taking what the course gave him until he found some back-nine magic for a third-round 70 and a four-shot lead over four players at the 75th Masters.
"I'm not getting ahead of myself," said McIlroy, who will play Sunday alongside 2009 Masters champion Angel Cabrera (67, 8-under), the only one of the top eight players on the board who has won a major. "I know how leads can dwindle away very quickly around here."
McIlroy went without a three-putt for the third straight day and was followed on foot by his countryman and Ryder Cup teammate, Graeme McDowell, who missed Friday's cut.
"He just texted me," McIlroy said from the press room dais. "He said he loved me. I don't know what that means. I don't know if that's the beers talking, or what."
McIlroy smiled as reporters broke up laughing. It was easy to crack jokes after the way he ended his round, having padded his lead with three birdies in his final six holes.
He birdied the par-5 13th and 15th before curling in a double-breaking, 33-footer on 17, punching the air as the ball dove over the front edge of the cup. The shot of the day came after McIlroy had driven left into the trees but escaped by hooking a pitching wedge through a gap onto the green.
"It was a bonus," McIlroy said. "After I hit the tee shot I'd have been happy to make 4 and walk to the 18th tee."
Australian Jason Day, who began Saturday two shots behind McIlroy, birdied three of the first five holes to take the lead but the course eventually got the better of him on a day when balls began rolling around as if the greens were made of linoleum. Day signed for a 72 and was four back with Cabrera, K.J. Choi (71) and Charl Schwartzel (68).
"I think Rory's going to be a little nervous tomorrow," said Masters rookie Day, "but the way he's hitting it he's going to be very, very tough to catch."
Cabrera made one of the day's biggest moves, carding six birdies to come lumbering into contention and conjure up memories of his 2007 U.S. Open and '09 Masters wins. Adam Scott, the Australian who has recently adopted the long putter, bogeyed 18 to shoot 67 and was 7-under.
"They always say the Masters starts on the back nine on Sunday," Scott said. "I've got to get myself there first."
Luke Donald, who won the WGC-Accenture Match Play earlier this year, shot 69 and was at 7 under with Scott.
Pins were tucked in the corners, and with the course firming up putting became treacherous Saturday, especially for the two bold-faced names in the chase pack.
Tiger Woods, who began the day three off McIlroy's lead, bogeyed the first hole and burned the edges all day. He watched incredulously as his ball peered into the cup but refused to drop on the fifth hole, missed a two-footer for par on 11, and three-putted for par on 15. He hit a wild tee shot on 17, a wild approach shot on 18 and signed for a 74.
"Pleased with the way I played," Woods said. "I just made nothing. I hit so many putts early that looked like they were going to go in that didn't go in and also had a couple three-putts out there, so not very good."
Woods goes into Sunday seven behind, in a five-way tie for ninth place that also includes Fred Couples (72), Ross Fisher (71), Geoff Ogilvy (73) and Bubba Watson (67). Jack Burke Jr. came from eight back in the last round in 1956, the biggest come-from-behind win in Masters history.
Phil Mickelson, who won last week at the Shell Houston Open and hoped to become the first player to win back-to-back Masters since Woods in 2001-'02, suffered another frustrating putting day and could only manage a 71. He was nine behind the leader, tied for 18th place.
"It's been a little frustrating on the greens," said Mickelson, who has averaged 31 putts per round for the first three rounds. "I putted so well last week at Houston, I expected to come out this week and kind of light it up."
It hasn't happened for him, or Woods. McIlroy, who in his third Masters would be the first wire-to-wire winner here since Trevor Immelman in 2008, has made it happen. He will go off with Cabrera at 2:40 p.m. on Sunday. Forecast: near-record highs around 90 degrees, with humidity. It'll be a different kind of heat for McIlroy.