On the bright side, at least Rory McIlroy won't have to bear the indignity of losing head-to-head to a non-competitive marker on Sunday.
McIlroy's one-under 71 on Saturday put him back on the right track following a miserable second round and currently has him sitting in a tie for 24th place heading into the final round. While it's a far cry from the final group for the pre-tournament co-favorite, it sure as hell beats where he was following Friday's 77.
McIlroy played his entire third day "alone" from a tournament sense, but in actuality, he played with Augusta club member Jeff Knox. Selected as the marker for the 2014 event—a marker is someone who serves as a non-participant partner in the case of an odd-numbered cut—Knox came out Saturday and carded a two-under 70.
He was well ahead of McIlroy throughout the day, moseying along unassumingly while he trended on Twitter as the golf world mocked the Northern Irishman:
Due to odd number of golfers, Rory McIlroy played w Augusta National member today, Jeff Knox. Unofficial result, Knox beat Rory by 1 stroke— Dan Wetzel (@DanWetzel) April 12, 2014
While McIlroy righted the ship, a majority of his Saturday afternoon was spent fighting the bottom of the leaderboard. He went to the 15th tee two over for the day, six over for the tournament and just barely hanging above the likes of Joost Luiten and Larry Mize, the last-place finishers among the 51 participants who made the cut.
Of course, McIlroy battled back with three birdies in his last four holes, but it proved little solace. He'll spend his Sunday playing an early afternoon round, teeing off at 12:40 p.m. ET with playing partner Jimmy Walker.
With leaders Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth eight strokes ahead of the world's ninth-ranked player, McIlroy's final 18 will be about building confidence going into the rest of the season rather than a torrid comeback. A top-10 finish isn't entirely out of the question depending on course conditions, but McIlroy mostly needs to make sure his final four holes Saturday weren't a blip on the long-term radar.
The underlying numbers say there's plenty of reason for optimism. McIlroy has hit better than 70 percent of his greens in regulation and two-thirds of his fairway, while driving the ball farther on average than anyone in the field. Those are at the very least contending numbers—if not quite good enough to wear the green jacket.
McIlroy's putter, though? Yeah, that's broken. The former world No. 1 has attempted 95 putts through the first three rounds, an average of 1.76 per hole. Of the players still remaining in the field, only Henrik Stenson, Jimmy Walker and Billy Horschel have been worse on the greens. McIlroy is above-average in driving accuracy and has been one of the best iron players—even from the fairway rough.
After his round, McIlroy remained so frustrated with his putting that he jokingly suggested he was half-tempted to ask Knox to read his breaks.
"He obviously knows this place so well and gets it around," McIlroy told reporters. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone putt the greens as well as he does around here. He was really impressive. I was thinking of maybe getting him to read a few of my putts out there."
McIlroy's putter has been the source of many of his struggles this season and last, so it's not exactly a guarantee he got into a groove Saturday. Plus, given McIlroy's long history of Sunday frustrations at Augusta, cautious optimism is about the most positive outlook one could have.
In his last six weekend rounds at Augusta, McIlroy has carded only two scores par or better. That streak started with McIlroy's infamous 80 in the fourth round three years ago and continued as he's shot an aggregate nine over in three Sundays.
Where will Rory McIlroy Finish at 2014 Masters
The reality of the situation is that it's impossible to predict what comes for McIlroy. Mostly because he barely even knows. In certain stretches, he can look like the most powerful golfer in the planet. Long off the tee, accurate with his irons and above-average on the short grass. Then there are others—such as his two double bogeys in Round 2—where everything is going awry, and the oncoming meltdown is a foregone conclusion.
Is it possible McIlroy goes out and shoots 66 on Sunday to finish within a stone's throw of the lead? Of course. Is it equally possible McIlroy drops a 78 hammer and spends his round looking like a 10-year-old boy whose puppy just got punted off the Bay Bridge? Totally.
As McIlroy told the Irish Examiner, even his own goals for Sunday's round are relatively modest:
My best finish here is 15th, which isn't really anything to shout about, so it would be nice to play well tomorrow, shoot something in the mid to high 60s and maybe finish the week in red figures.
I think a good goal would be to have my best finish ever at Augusta and go from there. It wouldn't be the week that I would have wanted from the start, but the way the last two days have went it wouldn't be a bad way to finish the week.
As for a projection, let's shoot for somewhere in the middle. Mostly because I'm a coward. McIlroy is probably more likely to ascend or flame out than card another nondescript middle number, but the high-variance possibility make it difficult to find a middle ground.
Rory McIlroy Fourth-Round Score Prediction: 70 (one-over for tournament, tie for 12th place overall).
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