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McIlroy remains out front

On top of the world

Sunday, April 10, 2011

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The weight of an impatient continent rests on Rory McIlroy's young shoulders in today's final round of the 75th Masters Tournament.

Rory McIlroy walks to the 17th green, where he shot par to finish a 2-under-par round that widened his lead to four strokes. Today, he could become Europe's first Masters winner since 1999, when Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal won. (Zach Boyden-Holmes/Staff)

A European hasn't won the Masters in 12 years, and the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland is in prime position to end that run.

McIlroy came to life with birdies on two of his final four holes to shoot 2-under-par 70 on Saturday and double his 36-hole lead from two to four shots.

It's the biggest 54-hole lead at Augusta National since Tiger Woods led by nine in 1997 en route to a 12-shot victory.

"It feels good," said McIlroy, who was cheered on Saturday by countryman Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, who was in his gallery after missing the cut.

"I'm not getting ahead of myself," McIlroy said. "I know how leads can dwindle away quickly. I have to go out there tomorrow, not take anything for granted and go out and play as hard as I've played the last three days. If I can do that, hopefully things will go my way. "

McIlroy's fourth and last birdie Saturday came when he rolled in a 33-footer on No. 17 that followed an errant tee shot. He lifted his putter in the air just like Jack Nicklaus did when he birdied that hole 25 years ago en route to his historic victory at age 46.

Rory McIlroy misses his birdie putt on No. 18. The 21-year-old from Northern Ireland would be the second-youngest Masters winner, behind Tiger Woods in 1997. (Corey Perrine/Staff)

"It was a bonus after I hit the tee shot," McIlroy said. "I'd been waiting all day for a putt to drop."

McIlroy is at 12-under 204. He was tied for the first-round lead at 65, led by two shots after 69 and now is up by four. He's trying to be only the 15th first-round co-leader to go on and win the tournament.

Four players are tied for second place, four back, headed by the imposing figure in Argentina's Angel Cabrera, who will be McIlroy's playing partner today, going off at 2:40 p.m.

Cabrera, the 2009 Masters champion, is the only player within six shots of McIlroy who has won a major championship. Cabrera has two, including the 2007 U.S. Open.

"The young kids are playing very well," said Cabrera, referring to McIlroy and 23-year-old Jason Day. "But obviously I have won the Masters, so that should help me a lot."

The other players joining Cabrera in a tie for second place are South Africa's Charl Schwartzel (68 on Saturday), South Korea's K.J. Choi (71) and Australia's Day, who followed up his 64 on Friday with 72.

Golfers five shots back are Australia's Adam Scott (67) and England's Luke Donald (69), who won Wednesday's Par-3 Contest and is trying to be the first golfer to win that event and the Masters in the same year.

For the first time in Masters history, there is no American in the top five after 54 holes.

The top U.S. player is Bo Van Pelt, who had 68 and is six shots back at 210.

Five players -- including four-time champion Tiger Woods -- are seven shots off the pace. Woods shot 74 Saturday.

The odds will be riding with McIlroy and Cabrera today. The Masters champion has come out of the final pairing 19 of the past 20 Masters, including 2009 with Cabrera. The lone exception was 2007, when Zach Johnson won the green jacket.

The odds are not with Day, who is playing in his first Masters. Only three players have won the Masters in their first attempt, the last being Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.

For Day to win, he'll need McIlroy to come back to the field.

"Rory, the way he's hitting the ball, he can pretty much go out there and he can shoot a couple under par I think and probably win," Day said.

"A lot of guys are four shots back, so there's a lot of pressure on us to obviously go out there and score early and try and put some pressure on him so he can make some mistakes, I guess," said Day, who played the first three rounds with McIlroy. "But he's very mentally tough. He's a great golfer, and if he wins this thing tomorrow, he deserves it, definitely. "

"I think especially tomorrow, there will be lots of pressure on the guy that is leading," Schwartzel said.

McIlory leads the field in driving distance at 303 yards and is second in greens in regulation (43 of 54). He is averaging 27.6 putts a round and is one of just four players in the field who hasn't had a three-putt green.

"I don't see why he can't win," said Padraig Harrington, a three-time major championship winner who missed the cut. "If he does win, I can tell you, there will be another name thrown into the guys who's going to win the most majors in their career. He has a great opportunity to win at 21 years of age. He'll be coming back here for 50 years."

If McIlroy does win, he would be the second-youngest Masters champion behind Woods, who was 21 years, 3 months and 14 days old when he won in 1997. McIlroy is 21 years, 11 months and 23 days old today. He turns 22 on May 4.

Day and Scott are trying to become the first Australian to win at Augusta National.

"It's something, one of the things that we haven't accomplished in Australian sport, I guess," Scott said. "We are a strong sporting nation and we push our athletes hard. One day it's going to happen.

"But you know, I don't think the guys here carry a burden," Scott said. "I think no one here is thinking there's a voodoo on us from Australia. ... One good round, and an Aussie can earn this championship."

Defending champion Phil Mickelson, who has been unable to tap into the momentum of last week's victory at the Houston Open, finds himself nine shots back after rounds of 70-72-71. The greatest comeback in Masters history after 54 holes is eight shots, by Jackie Burke Jr. in 1956.

"I'm going to be quite a few back," Mickelson said, "but on Sunday a lot can happen. I'm not going to count myself out.

The scoring has been so low that through three rounds, only 12 of the 49 players to make the cut are not under par.

No one, though, has managed to shoot in the 60s each day. McIlroy and Ogilvy (69-69) were the only ones to do it the first two rounds. McIlroy at least kept his score under par in the third round, but Ogilvy had 73. No one in Masters history has shot in the 60s in all four rounds.

Reach David Westin at (706) 823-3224 or david.westin@augustachronicle.com.

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