The Masters 2016: Rory McIlroy blazes back into contention as Jordan Spieth wilts
Rory McIlroy blazed into Masters contention with an excellent one under par 71 as defending champion - and overnight leader - Jordan Spieth struggled in tricky conditions at Augusta.
McIlroy finished with a three under par total - just one behind Spieth, who he had trailed by a whopping eight shots at one stage during the second round.
McIlroy set the clubhouse target on a windswept second day of the Masters, as Spieth - with a two over par 74 - battled to maintain his lead and his composure.
Seeking a first green jacket to complete the career grand slam, the Ulsterman's chances looked slim when he followed two early birdies with a double bogey on the fourth and bogeys on the fifth and 11th.
At that stage he was eight shots behind Spieth after the world number two birdied the first and third in pursuit of becoming just the fourth player after Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods to successfully defend the year's first major.
However Spieth, who set records for the highest number of birdies (28) and lowest 36 and 54-hole totals in Masters history last year, then four-putted the fifth from 50 feet to run up a double bogey, bringing back unhappy memories of doing the same on the eighth hole in the final round of the Open at St Andrews last year.
A birdie on the eighth looked to have steadied the ship, but Spieth then bogeyed the ninth and 10th and was visibly - and audibly - annoyed at being timed for slow play.
McIlroy took full advantage with birdies on the 13th, 15th and 16th and the fist pump when he saved par from the trees on the 18th told a story.
US Amateur champion Bryson DeChambeau, who was playing alongside Spieth, had birdied the 11th and 12th to join McIlroy on three under, but finished on level overall.
McIlroy's 71 equalled the lowest score of the day and left him one ahead of Danny Lee and Scott Piercy, who were also safely in the clubhouse.
"It was very difficult," McIlroy said. "It's very hard to select a club. On the 12th tee I felt a little lull in the wind and hit it straight away.
"Once you get it where you feel it you have to hit it and trust it which is the hardest thing out there. Anything under par is a very good score.
"I definitely feel like I am coming in with not as much hype or anticipation as last year. You have Jordan as defending champion, Jason (Day) getting to number one off a couple of wins, Adam (Scott) having a couple of wins - I felt I was just part of the narrative instead of just being the narrative and I like that position.
"I feel great. I feel so much better than I did yesterday. I played the last three holes on two over and today I played the last six holes in three under so I am really happy with how I battled and ground it out and I'll have to do the same tomorrow," he added.
McIlroy had stressed the need for a good start earlier this week and was delighted to be in such a good position after a round he rated as one of his best at Augusta.
"It's up there," he added. "I kept my composure and I played the shots when I needed to. It's the second day, there's still two days to go, but it's a great round and it's nice to be up there near the lead going into the weekend here instead of on the cut line and having to battle back. I'm happy with where I'm at."
The Holywood star added: "If I can have a weekend like I did that last weekend, I'd be very happy."
Legend Tom Watson bowed out with a six over 78 to finish on eight over par.