While there’s no doubt that the 2018 Masters tournament has been one of the most keenly-contested in living memory, a two-horse race appears to be developing at the top of the leaderboard.
This certainly seemed to be the case at the end of day three, as world number 24 Patrick Reed continued his outstanding tournament to date to claim a three-shot lead over three-time major winner Rory McIlroy. These two players look to be in imperious form, and are the most likely to compete for the coveted green jacket on the final Sunday.
So, let’s take a look at how day three unfolded, and ask whether or not any other players can mount a late victory charge.
Reed vs. McIlory – A Battle to the End?
Despite McIlroy’s obvious pedigree, there’s no doubt that the impressive Reed will start the final day as favourite. Not only have three of the last four Augusta champions found themselves ahead at the halfway stage, for example, but Reed has yet to falter and managed to card an outstanding 67 and move 14-under for the tournament.
After a faultless front nine yesterday, Reed responded with to a dropped shot at the 12th by coaxing on a downhill put for his first eagle of the tournament. He followed this up with another at the 15th, and despite missing a seven-foot putt to birdie at the last he still managed to finish five-under par for the day and extend his lead.
Last years’ USPGA runner-up Reed also became the first man since Lee Westwood in 2010 to play his first three rounds under 70 at the Masters, and he remains well-placed to claim his maiden major at Augusta.
While Reed’s incredibly consistency meant that many of the chasing pack struggled to remain in contention throughout day three, McIlroy produced a similarly superb round to take control of second place. More specifically, he shot a bogey-free, seven-under 65, as he moved seamlessly to 11-under overall and remained within three strokes of his American rival.
The Ulsterman produced a flawless round of golf under immense pressure, playing alongside the 42-year old Henrik Stenson. He was particularly impressive on the front nine, as he birdied three of the first six holes before securing an eagle at the eighth with a truly magnificent approach shot from the undulations.
This gave him a share of the lead at that stage, but his momentum was interrupted by heavy rain and gale-force winds on the back nine. This caused McIlroy to tailor his approach and consolidate his earlier good work, as he salvaged par at the 13th and claimed two more hard-earned birdies at the par five 15th and the last.
This was impressive work to say the least, as McIlroy maintained his hopes of winning a maiden Masters title and becoming just the sixth man to win the career Grand Slam of golf.
Beyond the Top Two – Can anyone Else Mount a Challenge?
Given the way in which both Reed and McIlroy performed on day three, it’s hard to imagine a player outside of these two slipping on the green jacket on Sunday evening. There are a handful of stars who remain in contention, however, including a number of competitors who hit form on Saturday.
We start with third-placed Rickie Fowler, who has finished in the top five in each of the four major tournaments during his career (although he has yet to win a slam). He displayed some truly masterful touches on day three, combining excellent approach play with solid putting to make five birdies and an eagle in a bogey-free round. Overall, Fowler carded a seven-under 65 to fall nine-under par overall, and just five shots from the overall lead.
Spanish star Jon Rahm was also in imperious form on Saturday, as he produced what was arguably the best of 11 sub-70 rounds in tough conditions. The 23-year old, who tied 21st on his Masters debut last year, was just one-under going into the third round, but followed his second eagle of the week with five birdies to card a superb 65 (seven-under).
As a result, he moved eight-under overall, and a similar performance on the final day could be enough to see him secure his maiden slam.
The 2015 winner Jordan Spieth also remains in contention, despite a disappointing front nine on Saturday. Starting the day level with McIlroy, he dropped two shots on the front nine to fall behind the leaders. He managed to reverse his fortunes by making birdies at inward par fives, however, eventually carding a 71 to move five-under par overall.
While it would take something special for Spieth to win his second Masters title from here, his mental fortitude and improved putting means that he is capable of producing a tournament-winning round on Sunday.
Going into the Masters, world number one Dustin Johnson and USPGA champion Justin Thomas were two of only three players who had won on the tour in 2018 (along with McIlory).Given that the previous four Augusta champions had already won a title in the same calendar year, these two were heavily backed from the outset, but Johnson’s faltering challenge appeared to flat line after he drove into the trees for a double-bogey at the 11th (he’s now four-under overall).
Thomas fared slightly better by firing three birdies in a solid 70, as he moved five-under par and nine shy of the lead. Still, it’s hard to see him emerging victorious and claiming the world number one spot from Johnson.
The Bottom Line – Who will Prevail at Augusta?
A day three drew to a close, both Reed and McIlroy were keen to wage psychological warfare ahead of the fourth and final round. McIlroy was particularly bullish about his chances, claiming that he wanted to “spoil Reed’s party” and that “all of the pressure” was on the American.
Texas-born Reed, who has the full backing of a fervent local crowd, attempted to alleviate some of this pressure by referring McIlroy’s four year quest to complete the career Grand Slam. Reed will also be aware that the Ulsterman’s recent major bids have all been let down by at least one disappointing nine, and suggested that the electrifying and hostile atmosphere could have an effect on his rival.
Reed will also want to draw on the spirit of Hazeltine, when he memorably beat McIlory in a thrilling Ryder Cup tussle before a baying crowd.
Should Reed and McIlroy become overly consumed by their rivalry on the final day, however, it’s possible that one of the chasing pack could still mount a serious challenge for the green jack.
Of these, Spieth and Fowler may be the best-placed to capitalise, with the 2015 Masters champion boasting the experience and the mentality to punish any mistakes made by the leaders.