AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rory McIlroy kept pushing, pushing, pushing.
With the sun setting over the third round of the Masters, McIlroy pushed Tiger Woods right off the leaderboard.
That’s how it felt Saturday at Augusta National.
Woods was playing in the pairing directly in front of McIlroy, the ideal place for Woods to apply pressure to the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland, the perfect place to literally show the young Ulsterman how you take control of a major on the weekend.
But the day would end feeling like this Masters is McIlroy’s to lose. And it would end feeling like Woods has already lost it.
Through the second nine, Woods might not have been able to see what is coming, but he heard it.
In fact, standing over his approach shot into the 18th green, Woods had to step off his ball when McIlroy conjured a roar at the 17th green, rolling in a 40-foot putt for birdie. Woods answered by blowing his approach over the green. His closing bogey knocked his name off the leaderboard.
With a solid 2-under-par 70 on a difficult setup, McIlroy took control of the 75th Masters Tournament in a bid to win his first major championship.
At 12-under 204, McIlroy has built a four-shot lead on 2009 Masters champ Angel Cabrera and three others.
McIlroy is right where he wants to be, in the final pairing in the final round of the Masters, a position from which 19 of the last 20 winners of this event have come.
Woods? After a 74, the worst Saturday score among the final five pairings, Tiger begins Sunday seven shots back.
If McIlroy can finish this off, it will feel like more than a victory for the Irishman. It will feel like a shift in the game’s power base. It will feel like a young, new movement is officially taking over.
Martin Kaymer was 25 when he won the PGA Championship last August. Louis Oosthuizen was 27 when he won the British Open last July. That’s three consecutive titles for the twentysomethings, if McIlroy closes this out.
McIlroy, however, knows there’s hard work to be done.
“It feels good,” he said of the four-shot lead. “I’m not getting ahead of myself. I know how leads can dwindle away very 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.”
McIlroy embodies the fearless nature of this new breed.
It isn’t just his bold game. It’s his bold attitude. While his statements about Woods, about how today’s players don’t fear the former No. 1, get overplayed, McIlroy’s attitude sets him apart as the next generation’s leading man.
McIlroy talked Saturday about how Woods “grabbed all our imaginations” winning the 1997 Masters by 12 shots. He honored Woods’ breakthrough as a “huge moment for golf” and credited Woods with “doing more for the game than I ever could or will.” At the same time, you sense McIlroy isn’t afraid of Woods or his aura or anyone else’s.
“I really don’t care about anyone else in this tournament other than myself,” McIlroy said when asked about Woods’ inability to make a move on him. “To think about other players would be very naïve and very silly.”
Unless Cabrera, who’s dangerous near any lead, turns this championship his way, a breakthrough seems certain Sunday. Cabrera’s the only major championship winner among the top eight on the leaderboard, among anyone within six shots of the lead.
But McIlroy has lots of company trying to break through.
Fellow Aussies Jason Day and Adam Scott will be looking to push each other in a bid to win Australia its first Masters from their spots, four and five back, respectively.
How grand would that be Down Under?
“Indescribable,” Scott said.
South Korea’s K.J. Choi is trying to win his first major from four back.
“I’m happy where I am,” Choi said. “I’m in good position. You never know what can happen on the final day.”
Charl Schwartzel, Luke Donald, Bo Van Pelt – they’re all looking for their first majors.
Woods is looking for a first, also. He’s looking for his first come-from-behind victory in a major championship.
“Pleased with the way I played, I just made nothing,” said Woods, who missed a 2-foot putt for par at the 11th, three-putted the 15th and missed a 5-foot putt for par at the final hole.
And all the while, Woods heard McIlroy making putts, heard him making a move that may bring an entire new generation of champions to the game’s forefront.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell