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Young gun McIlroy separates himself from peers

Sunday, April 10, 2011

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Rory McIlroy stood on the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club on Saturday afternoon with a two-stroke lead and all eyes fixed on him.

Rory McIlroy lines up a putt on No. 6 during Saturday's third round. (Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff)

As the 36-hole leader, the 21-year-old couldn't help but keep glancing in the direction of the leaderboard at the 18th green. Four times he surveyed the list of names trying to catch him. He quickly learned the field had gone to work early.

The leaderboard showed McIlroy he still had the lead, but the field was closing in. Sergio Garcia and Brandt Snedeker, guys McIlroy had a six-stroke lead on entering the day, had cut the gap in half at the time. Masters champion Angel Cabrera was about to make his move, and four-time winner Tiger Woods and K.J. Choi, in the group just ahead of McIlroy, threatened as more experienced golfers with plenty to prove .

The world's best golfers were coming for him and television cameras and thousands of eyes followed his every move on the tee.

It was almost too much for a 21-year-old to handle.

"It's natural to get nervous. If I wasn't nervous on the first tee (Sunday) there'd be something wrong," he said. "So yeah, I'll be nervous. But once that first tee shot gets out of there, you're off and running and you're just trying to do your thing."

The nervousness didn't show in his first swing Saturday. McIlroy stepped to the tee and smashed a drive down the center of the fairway. Woods had used a 3-wood 15 minutes prior to avoid the right fairway bunker. McIlroy just drove past it.

That's how a weekend full of young talent began. The Masters Tournament leaderboard began the third round with McIlroy at 10-under, Jason Day, his 23-year-old playing partner, two strokes back and 21-year-old Rickie Fowler at 5-under.

The three representatives of golf's new generation brought youthful energy to the weekend - Fowler's tweet 30 minutes before he teed off proclaimed it was "GOTIME" - but not everyone handled the pressure well.

Fowler, playing with the added pressure of a pairing with 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples, went from bunker to bunker at the seventh green for a double-bogey 6, and bogeyed the first three holes on the back nine to finish out of contention with a third-round 76. He's tied for 30th at 1-under par .

"A couple times I had to kind of just sit back and remind myself we're playing the Masters on Saturday and I'm getting to play with Freddie, someone who I've looked up to since I was a little kid," Fowler said. "And so, obviously, not the round I wanted. But I was just out there a couple of times reminding myself to try to calm me down a little bit and relax."

Day hung with his playing partner and even took a temporary lead after his birdie at the fifth hole, combined with McIlroy's bogey, gave the Australian a one-stroke cushion at 11-under. But Day bogeyed the next two holes and finished with an even-par 72, which kept him in contention at 8-under but bumped him out of the final pairing.

He said his inexperience is a disadvantage in a field with so many veterans.

"The guys that have been there, they are experienced. They are not going to be as nervous as the younger guys," he said. "So obviously I think Rory is going to be a little nervous tomorrow, but the way he's hitting it, he's going to be very, very tough to catch."

McIlroy, playing in his third Masters, handled the pressure Saturday like a veteran. He wasn't perfect - three times he lost sole possession of the lead within the first 10 holes - but he played the last six holes in 3-under to take a four-stroke lead into the final round.

"He's very mentally tough," said Day, who has played all three rounds this week with McIlroy. "He's a great golfer, and if he wins this thing tomorrow he deserves it, definitely."

Reach Billy Byler at (706) 823-3216 or billy.byler@augustachronicle.com.

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