AUGUSTA, Ga. - It was a roar that defines the Masters, so loud it startled even Tiger Woods.
Rory McIlroy, who already dazzled the crowd with a shot through the pines to the back of the 17th green, raised the putter in his left hand as the birdie putt turned toward the hole, then slammed his right fist when the ball disappeared into the cup.
The cheer was so clamorous that Woods, who had settled over his shot in the 18th fairway, had to back away. After all these years of crushing the hopes of so many others, the four-time Masters champ finally felt what it was like on the other end.
That moment – and right now, this Masters – belongs to McIlroy.
“I had been waiting on a putt to drop all day,” McIlroy said Saturday. “And for it to drop there, it was great timing.”
It sent the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland to a 2-under 70 and gave him a four-shot lead going into today – the largest 54-hole lead at the Masters since a 21-year-old named Tiger Woods led by nine in 1997.
Woods is not close to him after a 2-over 74 to finish seven shots behind. Chasing after McIlroy are former Masters champion Angel Cabrera, Charl Schwartzel, K.J. Choi and Jason Day.
“It’s a great position to be in,” McIlroy said. “I feel comfortable with my game, comfortable with the way I prepared, and all of a sudden I’m finally feeling comfortable on this golf course. With a combination like that, you’re going to feel pretty good.”
He is making it look easy.
That bounce in his step turned into a swagger as he walked to the 18th tee, ripped another drive and walked toward the green to a loud ovation – perhaps a preview to a coronation.
McIlroy was at 12-under 204 and will play in the final group today with Cabrera, who won the Masters two years ago and is the only major champion within six shots of McIlroy.
The group at 8-under 208 also includes Schwartzel (68), Choi (71) and Day, a 23-year-old Australian who took the lead on the front nine with a long birdie on No. 5 but paid for his aggressive putting and had to settle for a 72.
“I’m not getting ahead of myself,” McIlroy said. “I know how leads can dwindle very quickly. I have to go out there tomorrow, not take anything for granted, and go out and play as hard as I’ve played the last three days. If I can do that, hopefully things will go by way.”
The challenge from Woods, who started the third round three shots behind, never materialized.
He squandered birdie chances with a fairway metal that went too long on the par-5 eighth, a 5-foot birdie putt that never had a chance on No. 9, a shocking miss for par from 2 feet on No. 11 and a three-putt par on the 15th after an amazing hook around the trees that barely cleared the water.
“I just made nothing,” Woods said. “I hit the ball well all day. That wasn’t the problem. Take away the two three-putts there, a couple of unforced errors and it should have been a pretty good round.”
McIlroy didn’t have to make any such excuses.
He has made only three bogeys over three rounds, and no three-putts – always a key at the Masters. He and Day were tied for the lead at 9 under as they made their way through Amen Corner, and McIlroy seized control on the 13th. His 6-iron found the green and he two-putted for a birdie; Day went long on his approach, into the second cut, and he missed a 6-footer to save par.
TODAY: Final round, Ch. 7, 11 a.m. to conclusion