AUGUSTA -- Moving day at Augusta National Golf Club couldn’t have moved slower.
Folks around the course waited an awful long time -- which seemed even longer considering how electric Friday turned out -- for the pace to quicken Saturday at the Masters.
Then Rory McIlroy, the young man from Northern Ireland and perhaps Europe’s answer to Tiger Woods, finally took charge and pieced together a back nine that got him as close to the green jacket as a player can get on a Saturday.
The moppy-haired 21-year-old birdied three of his final six holes to move to 12 under for the tournament, four shots clear of four players tied for second place.
McIlroy won’t win by 12 strokes like Woods did in 1997 -- Woods was coincidentally also 21 at the time -- unless insanity takes hold in Augusta.
He could, however, inspire a million Europeans the way Woods did with his win, and that’s a scary proposition for American golf. The last thing the U.S. needs is a dominant performance by McIlroy, mobilizing a continent of young golfers that is already beating America up and down most courses. But none of the Americans on the leaderboard heading into Saturday appeared interested in stopping the prodigy from Holywood, Northern Ireland.
McIlroy’s finish Saturday -- more specifically his back-breaking birdie on No. 17 to take a four-shot lead -- became the story.
When he turned professional at 18 and started flashing his talent early in his career, McIlroy seemed destined to become a major force in golf for a long time. He shot a 62 last year to win at Quail Hollow, and he has finished third in three majors and opened the 2010 British Open with a 63.
McIlroy may have not been ready to take over as the game’s best young player during those moments, but he has unquestionably earned that title this week.
McIlroy’s back-nine performance, however, wasn’t an indicator for how much of the day went.
Led by McIlroy, a cadre of youngsters, the most recognizable player in the world and a cast of other elite golfers took aim at Augusta National on Friday and electrified the crowds at the Masters.
The play of McIlroy, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Woods, Lee Westwood and others made Friday’s second round feel like a Saturday or a Sunday round. Most figured the electricity would continue in the third round with the youthful energy of the young guns coupled with the re-emergence of Woods.
But there was a power outage in Augusta, and that made moving day at the Masters feel about as fun as an actual moving day.
Outside of McIlroy, the leaders moved laterally or downward and failed to ignite even a smidgen of the fireworks they sent flying throughout Friday’s second round.
Fans waited on Woods’ return to dominance, particularly after the flashes of brilliance he displayed during his back-nine 31 on Friday.
Instead, fans got the Woods of the past year, one who couldn’t back up his lofty play. The same weakened Woods set Pebble Beach on fire last June in the third round, but he had a forgettable final round. This time, the spark and following fizzle came a day earlier in the week.
No one seems able to predict how Woods will play round to round -- least of all Woods himself -- but it’s hard to believe he’ll put everything together Sunday at the Masters.
The movement on the leaderboard Saturday came from the middle of the pack. Charl Schwartzel, Angel Cabrera, Adam Scott and Bo Van Pelt -- players who don’t exactly make television executives salivate -- pushed their way into the mix, helping to create a very different top 10 than the Masters closed with after 36 holes.
The tournament committee should push a big, red reset button on the third round and hope no remnants of the third round return Sunday. Ten of the top 11 36-hole leaders couldn’t do any better than 1 under in the third round, and seven of those 11 shot over par Saturday.
It’s little coincidence that the only player who made a real improvement in his score Saturday will be the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland wearing the green jacket Sunday evening.
Contact Jonathan Heeter at 744-4400 or firstname.lastname@example.org