McIlroy ready for breakthrough moment

 

A second-round 66 heightened expectations that Tiger Woods was back on his game, on the verge of rekindling past glorious Masters moments.

Sure enough, time did get turned back Saturday in the third round at Augusta National. It just wasn't Woods that made it happen. Instead, it's a swashbuckling 21-year-old kid from across the Atlantic who is evoking memories of the old Tiger during his stupendous Masters breakthrough in 1997.

Not that there's any guarantee of Rory McIlroy running away with his first major the way Woods did here nearly a generation ago. A four-shot lead over four other international players heading into the Masters final round isn't nearly as comfortable as Woods, at 21, holding a 9-shot cushion over Constantino Rocca.

But it's hard at the moment not to make some connection between this brash player from Northern Ireland and how Tiger burst on the world stage, especially if McIlroy finishes the job today and slips on a green jacket.

When given a chance to discuss that comparison, McIlroy did something he hasn't done at any time through 54 splendid holes - the kid wisely stepped on the brakes.

"Not really, you know [Woods] has done so much more for the game than I ever could or will, breaking down barriers," McIlroy said. "But a win for me, personally, it would be huge. And for the game of golf, it would be nice as well. It would be nice to get a major early and show some of the young guys that it is possible."

At a different time and in the same place, that's what Tiger did and more. He showed golf that he was an out-of-this-world prodigy, introducing himself to the masses with a Masters record 18-under-par 270. We haven't seen anybody that young do anything close to that mesmerizing since then.

But what we've witnessed from McIlroy, who stands at 12-under-par 204 and held at least a piece of the lead for every hole but one Saturday, is pretty magnificent. Amidst speculation that Woods lurking three shots behind him when the day started might cause him to flinch under pressure, McIlroy held steady.

Jason Day taking a one-shot lead after the fifth hole didn't rattle him. And neither did having four different players getting within one shot of McIlroy or briefly tying him. The kid never wilted, instead registering birdies on three of the last six holes to extend the two-shot margin he had starting the day.

If anybody did the backing up, had trouble seizing any momentum to get himself in contention, it was Woods. An uncooperative putter (33 putts) led to a third-round 74, leaving Tiger seven shots off the pace and in a ninth-place tie. Barring a repeat of another great Masters memory, Jack Nicklaus' final-round 65 in 1986, it appears Woods' work-in-progress comeback to the winner's circle is still a little ways off.

"I had two three puts in there, and then I hit just a lot of beautiful putts that didn't go in," Woods said. "Could have easily been 3-, 4-, or 5-under-par."

But the reality is Woods shot the worst score of anybody still in the top-17 of the leaderboard. As has been the case in the past 16 months, he couldn't follow a score of 68 or better with another 68 or better.

McIlroy raised some eyebrows and caught some flak recently for publicly declaring that Woods was "not the dominant player he used to be." Until further notice, it's hard to argue that point.

If he can hold up Sunday and win, the question may then become whether McIlroy has the goods to become a dominant player. He certainly had that look about him when he dropped that 33-foot birdie putt at No. 17, after it appeared a tee shot into the pine straw would make bogey a real possibility.

When the putt fell, McIlroy raised his putter skyward, just as Nicklaus did at the same hole on Sunday in '86. Then he pump-fisted downward with the other arm, just as three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson often does.

So far, McIlroy has the look and feel of a kid ready to stake his claim to the world stage. Just like Tiger did in his third Masters appearance at the same age.

"That's when Tiger sort of grabbed all our imaginations, won it by 12, broke so many records," McIlroy said. "It was a huge moment in the game of golf."

Now we're waiting to see if Rory McIlroy can deliver his own young Tiger moment.

Reach Gene Frenette at gene.frenette@jacksonville.com; (904) 359-4540

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