Spieth hangs on to Masters lead, but just barely

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Jordan Spieth (Kevin C. Cox/ Getty Images)

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Jordan Spieth set a Masters record on Friday by leading the tournament for the sixth straight round.

He sure didn’t seem to be in a mood to celebrate.

Spieth led by as many as five shots after a fast start, and then, just like everyone else on this wickedly windy day, he had to hang on for dear life. Spieth holed a 15-foot par putt on the 18th hole for a 2-over 74 that gave him a one-shot lead over Rory McIlroy.

“I’m still in the lead. I couldn’t ask for much better than leading,” Spieth said. “I’m a bit disappointed right now, fresh off the round. Two over on the last three holes will leave you that way.”

McIlroy, who needs a green jacket to complete the Grand Slam, played the last six holes in 3 under for a 71 to match the low round of the day. Conditions were so brutal that it was the first time since the third round in 2007 that no one broke 70.

“I know I’m in a good position going into the weekend,” McIlroy said. “And I’m happy with that.”

The prospects of Spieth and McIlroy in the final group at any major, much less the Masters, is tantalizing. Both of them realize that this is far from the duel. With more wind expected on Saturday, it feels more like everyone against Augusta National. And right now, the odds are with the golf course.

The way Spieth came back to the field, the Masters is wide open.

He was at 4-under 140, the highest 36-hole lead since that frigid, windy Masters in 2007.

Danny Lee bogeyed his last two holes for a 72 and was two shots behind, along with Scott Piercy (72). The only other players who remained under par were Hideki Matsuyama (72), Brandt Snedeker (72) and Soren Kjeldsen (74).

Dustin Johnson birdied all the par 5s for a 71 and was in the group at even par that included U.S. Amateur champion Bryson DeChambeau, who felt the sting of Augusta on the final hole. DeChambeau was playing the best round of the day at 3 under and just one shot out of the lead. But he hooked his tee shot into the trees and had to return to the tee, hooked the next one and made triple bogey for a 72.

Still in the mix was Jason Day, who sputtered along to a 73 but was only five shots behind.

“It almost feels like a U.S. Open where you need to survive,” Day said. “And I’m trying my best to survive right now.”

Spieth finished a round over par at Augusta for the first time in his three Masters appearances. Coming off his wire-to-wire victory last year, that par save from the bunker on the 18th allowed him to set a record for most consecutive rounds in the lead. Arnold Palmer was atop the leaderboard for six straight rounds in 1960 and the opening two rounds in 1961, though he shared in those last two rounds.

Even so, it was hard to get past Spieth’s mistakes – a four-putt double bogey on No. 5, a three-putt bogey on No. 16. Frustration began to set in on the 10th when Spieth posed over his approach until it came up short of the green. “How is that into the wind?” he said, before turning and having a stern conversation with himself.

McIlroy was as many as eight shots behind and never lost sight of the difficult conditions. He picked up birdies on the two par 5s on the back, and holed a 40-foot birdie putt on the 16th before finishing with a par save out of the trees.

“I was at 8 under and you finish at 4. That’s kind of tough,” Spieth said. “I felt like I played better than 4 over from the fourth hole on.”

The gusts topped out at 30 mph on Friday, and it’s not expected to get easier. Throw in the pressure on Spieth to become only the fourth back-to-back winner at the Masters, and a burden on McIlroy to finish off the Grand Slam, and this could be theater at its finest.

“Tomorrow is going to be more difficult than today,” Spieth said. “Even par is one heck of a score tomorrow.”

He said anyone breaking par Saturday could move into the lead from as far back as 25th place.

Spieth’s par on the last hole not only kept him in the lead, it sent Phil Mickelson home for the weekend because of the 10-shot rule. Mickelson shot a career-high 79 and finished at 7-over to miss the cut.

Tom Watson missed the cut by two shots in his final Masters appearance, walking up the 18th fairway to a standing ovation and warm applause. He parred his last four holes for a 78 and said later, “I’m glad I don’t have to play that 18th hole anymore.”

Spieth, McIlroy and everyone else have two more days to endure to see who claims the green jacket.