Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods were left to wonder what might have been after their third rounds of the 79th Masters on Saturday.
Starting the day 12 shots adrift of runaway leader Jordan Spieth, 14-time major winner Woods and world number one McIlroy had the chance to pile on the pressure when they both reached the turn in 32 at Augusta National.
However, both players could only cover the back nine in 36 due to late bogeys and had to settle for rounds of 68 to finish six under par.
Woods, whose last Masters victory was 10 years ago, had refused to give up hope of wiping out his 12-shot deficit and made the ideal start to his third round with a hat-trick of birdies from the second, from a combined distance of less than nine feet.
Further chances went begging from just four feet on the sixth and 10 feet on the seventh before Woods recorded his fourth birdie of the day on the par-five eighth.
The 39-year-old hit a dreadful hook off the 13th tee, letting go of his club in the process and also letting slip an audible obscenity which forced television commentators to apologise.
The ball only travelled 175 yards but did not find Rae’s Creek and allowed Woods to play out onto the fairway and hit his approach to 15 feet to set up the unlikeliest of birdies.
However, he then bogeyed the 14th and also dropped a shot on the 18th after wayward drives, admitting: “I had my chances to make this a really special round.
“I had it going there for a little bit, made a stupidly good birdie on 13 and a stupidly bad bogey on 14. The score realistically should have been six or seven (under) today.
“I’m going to have to post something low, shoot 30 or 31 (on the front nine) and continue it on the back nine, at least give myself a chance going into the back nine.
“Right now it’s in Jordan’s hands. He could put a substantial gap between himself and the rest of the field. He is playing steady Eddie and that’s all he needs to do; handle the par fives, stay away from bogey and miss it in the correct spot.”
McIlroy was six under par for his round after 15 holes but bogeyed the 16th and 18th to see his chances of completing the career grand slam at the first attempt suffer a major blow.
“I’m going to need something basically around 61, 62 (tomorrow) to have a real chance. I’m not sure that’s going to happen but we’ll see,’’ said McIlroy, who is looking to become just the sixth player in history to win all four major titles.
“I’ve really just tried to treat it like a normal golf tournament or treat it like any other year. Any other year that I’ve come to the Masters, I’ve done the same things.
“I wasn’t approaching it like I was trying to win the grand slam. I was approaching it like I was trying to win another golf tournament. So I don’t think it’s really had any impact on the way I’ve played this week.”lf
Spieth’s halfway total of 130 not only set a new Masters record but also equalled the lowest 36-hole total in major championship history and, at 14 under par, was the lowest in relation to par in any major.
The 21-year-old was the fourth player to have a five-shot halfway lead in the Masters after Herman Keiser (1946), Jack Nicklaus (1975) and Ray Floyd (1976), all of whom went on to win.
That lead was cut to four shots despite a front nine of 35, with playing partner Charley Hoffman also going out in 35 before picking up a birdie on the 11th, while Phil Mickelson had gone to the turn in 32.
However, Spieth responded superbly with birdies on the 12th and 13th to move to 17 under, six ahead of Hoffman and seven clear of Mickelson.
England’s Justin Rose was another shot back after recovering from a slow start with birdies on the seventh, ninth, 13th and 14th.
Spieth’s lead was down to four shots when he three-putted the 14th and Mickelson birdied the 15th and holed from 40 feet for another on the 16th.
But it was quickly extended to seven when Mickelson three-putted the 17th and Spieth calmly birdied the 15th and 16th to get to 18 under par.
Woods set the tournament record of 18 under when he won his first Masters title at the age of 21 in 1997.