Rory McIlroy closed the gap on Masters champion Jordan Spieth on Friday night to set up a third-round showdown between the rivals at Augusta National.
Defending champion and world number two Spieth carded his first over-par round at the Masters with a two-over-par 74 that cut his first-round lead from two strokes to one at four under as McIlroy, the world number three, improved from two under to three under thanks to a second-round 71.
A shot behind on two under lies New Zealand's Danny Lee and American Scott Piercy while Soren Kjeldsen, Brandt Snedeker and Hideki Matsuyama are tied for fifth on one under par with Ireland's Shane Lowry part of a large group on level par.
Yet Spieth still leads, equalling Arnold Palmer's record, set in 1960-61, of six consecutive rounds at the top of the Masters leaderboard, by following on from his wire-to-wire win in 2015.
McIlroy's was one of only a handful of under-par rounds on a challenging day in Georgia, where winds picked up for the second day in a row and Augusta National set some tough pin positions.
And by throwing down the gauntlet to Spieth, the Irishman moved a step closer to the major championship title he believes has been a long time coming.
It was a tour de force given the exacting conditions that even had Spieth retreating from the four-shot lead he had enjoyed over the field on his front nine.
For McIlroy, in search of his first Masters victory having blown his chance in 2011 with a last-day 80, his second round was the template to finally achieving greatness over the next two rounds at Augusta National.
“I sort of feel that Augusta owes me something and I have come with that attitude,” McIlroy said. “I have come here to get something that I should have had a long time ago.
“You need to be so focused and in control of your emotions here. It’s about not getting fazed and mentally I have been good the last couple of days. I need to keep that going for the next two days."
It was an excellent back nine that put four-time major champion McIlroy in touching distance of Spieth and in the hunt for a first Masters title that would bring with it the career grand slam.
Spieth, beginning the day at six under following an opening 66, briefly reached eight under and a four-stroke lead after three holes as his nearest rivals, including overnight joint second-placed Lowry and Lee, began to fall away.
Lee shot a 74 to finish on two under while Ireland's Lowry had to settle for a four-over 76 to move back to level par, though neither total rules them out of contention over the next two rounds.
That is in part to world number two Spieth, who also began to feel the strain of the conditions, double-bogeying the par-four fifth and finishing the front nine birdie-bogey to go out in level par, six under for the tournament. A dropped shot at the 10th dropped the Texan 22-year-old to five under, just as McIlroy was summoning his charge down the closing holes, the four-time major champion with birdies at the par-five 13th and 15th and par-three 16th to send him home with a 71.
Spieth gained another shot at the par-five 15th to move to six under while playing partner Bryson DeChambeau, the US Amateur champion, birdied the same hole to overtake McIlroy on four under.
Yet both Americans bogeyed the 16th and Spieth unravelled a little more with another at 17 while DeChambeau had a nightmare closing hole, driving way left for an eventual triple-bogey seven and round of 72 that keeps him at level par alongside Lowry in a tie for eighth.
It all makes for an intriguing weekend at the Masters and though he will go head to head with Spieth in Saturday's final pairing as two of the game's new big three (world number one Jason Day is the other, on one over) come together for the first time in a weekend round at the majors, McIlroy is focused on glory, not worrying who is standing in his way.
“I should be concentrating on myself and thinking about what I need to do to win this golf tournament, regardless of who else is up there.
“I really need to focus on me and focus on everything I need to do well to hopefully be sitting up here on Sunday with one of those on (looking at am Augusta National member's green jacket).
“It's another golf tournament I'm trying to win. I'm trying to beat guys on this leaderboard that I've beaten before, so I need to take confidence from that and know that I've been in this position before. Maybe not on this golf course, but I've been in this position before in big tournaments and been able to get the job done.
“So that's the way I need to approach it. I know it's a very big weekend for me. I know that. But when I'm out there on the golf course, I just have to be completely 100 per cent focused on the task at hand, and if I can do that and stay in the moment and be completely focused over every golf shot I hit from now until Sunday night, then hopefully everything will work out the way I want it to.”
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