McIlroy widens the Augusta gap

Playing with the maturity of a seasoned 30-something, 21-year-old Rory McIlroy has extended his Masters lead.

Playing with the maturity and patience of a seasoned 30-something, 21-year-old Rory McIlroy has extended his lead after moving Saturday at the 75th Masters.

Making less mistakes than most of his pursuers, the Northern Ireland young gun shot a solid, third-round 70 that took his 54-hole total to 12-under, extended his lead from two to four, and sent him into Sunday’s final round looking for all the world like a prince getting ready to be crowned the new king of the Masters and to be draped with the famed Green Jacket.

A cool and confident McIlroy said afterwards: “It feels good – I’m in a great position.

“I stayed really patient and I’m really happy with how I stuck to my game plan. It paid off in the end.

“I feel comfortable, comfortable with my game, comfortable with the way I’ve prepared, and all of a sudden I’m finally feeling comfortable on this golf course.

“A combination like that, you know, you’re going to feel pretty good and post some good numbers.

“But I’m not getting ahead of myself. I know how leads can dwindle away very quickly.

“I have to go out there, not take anything for granted and play as hard as I’ve played the last three days. If I can do that, hopefully things will go my way.”

Jason Day, another of the exiting band of young pretenders challenging the established stars this year, could only add a level-par 72 to the blistering 64 that matched the Masters record for a second round score and slipped back into the four-way tie for second at eight-under with South African Charl Schwartzel, another of the young pretenders, former champion Angel Cabrera and the mentally tough KJ Choi of Korea.

Schwartzel is not in the final group on Sunday so history will be against him as 15 of the last 16 Masters champions have come from Sunday’s final group, but he insisted he was still happy with his position.

“I sort of prefer when you’re leading, you have a cushion to ride on,” said Schwartzel, bidding to become only the third South African after Gary Player and Trevor Immelman to win a Green Jacket.

“I’ve won from the front and I’ve won from behind. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter, it’s still the fourth round and you’ve got to play good golf.”

The Tiger Woods threat remained no more than that as the 14-time major winner failed to keep his momentum of the second round going, especially on Augusta National’s notoriously difficult greens, and slipped back into a tie for 9th at 5-under with a two-over 74.

In contrast McIlroy who against two bogeys, carded four birdies, three of them on the closing stretch and two of those on the par fives, did all he needed to do without ever showing signs of panic or concern.

His iron play wasn’t quite as precise and accurate as it had been on Thursday and Friday and shades of a Tiger Woods in his hay day, but what he did do well was hole out when he really needed to.

On days one and two McIlroy let a number of putts from inside 10 feet slip by, but those slips were scarce indeed on Saturday and his relentlessness eventually seemed to affect playing partner Day’s pin-sharp focus of the previous day, and the lightly-bearded young Australian could only match his four bogeys with four birdies.

A moment that was decisive on Saturday and could still be on Sunday came at the 17th, where after firing a rare wild tee shot into the trees, McIlroy found himself out of position facing a nasty downhill putt. Without blinking he walked up to it, took aim, and then struck it so true, its roll to the hole for the final birdie that took him to 12-under was inevitable.

Woods carried as much second-round momentum into the day as McIlroy and Day, but after a stellar showing on the back nine on Friday, his game started unraveling. On the very first hole his excellent drive found a divot and he had to head to the second-tee box with a bogey after his approach missed the green and he couldn’t make an up and down.

A three-putt green on 11 didn’t help his cause and after a birdie on the 13th, he missed a sure-fire birdie chance on 15.

Here, after a tee shot that left him with trees in his path, he hit a glorious swinging long iron that handed him an eagle opportunity. But he three-putted from 30 feet and then missed a par putt from 10 feet at 18 for his two-over 74.

Schwartzel had a fine debut at The Masters 12 months ago, finishing in a tie for 30th, and he looks set to improve on that showing after moving up to eight-under.

The South African putted beautifully, and it enabled him to card a four-under 68.

Schwartzel played alongside World No 2 Lee Westwood, who could have done with a putting lesson from his partner as his chances of a better finish than his runner-up spot last year evaporated .

Westwood hit his driver as well as anyone, produced some of the best iron play of the day, but he had no touch on the greens and must have seen his 2011 chances fly out of the window. Nine shots adrift of McIlroy, it may be a bridge too far.

Sergio Garcia came out of the blocks like an Olympic sprinter and charged to eight-under but then his old problem, his putting, let him down. Inexplicably, he ran into a bunch of bogey and double bogies that left him at one-under and too far behind to have any chance of winning a first major.

And indeed he was badly overshadowed by his playing partner, 2009 champion Angel Cabrera.

The Argentine has done little since his win at Augusta a couple of years ago, but Magnolia Lane seems to have revitalised him and he fired a inspiring six-birdie, one-bogey 67.

England’s Luke Donald is another player in the hunt after a solid round of 69. After a sluggish first found on Thursday, Donald has produced some superb golf and his charge to seven-under has given warning that his classy iron play and reliable putter could help him be the first man ever to break the Par Three curse with a victory on Sunday.

Former world No. 3 Adam Scott is also starting to look like championship material again, especially since obtaining his belly putter. He too is at seven under and a real contender, but Phil Mickelson’s hopes of defending his title are fading.

The left hander played beautifully on Friday without making any putts and it was a similar story in his third round when he posted a 71 to rise to three-under. It could have been different as Mickelson birdied two and three. But he gave a shot back on four and that checked his momentum.