By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - The "Jordan and Rory" show was the hottest ticket at the Masters on Saturday with the defending champion and a four-times major winner paired together for the third round but it failed to live up to its billing.
American world number two Jordan Spieth largely fulfilled his side of the bargain as he retained a one-shot lead in the year's opening major but Rory McIlroy struggled to find any spark on a brutal day for scoring in strong gusting winds.
Watched by huge galleries at Augusta National, Spieth and third-ranked Northern Irishman McIlroy generated plenty of buzz when they teed off but, by the time they finished in the Georgian twilight, there was a palpable sense of anti-climax.
Though reigning champion Spieth remained on top of the Masters leaderboard for a seventh consecutive round after battling to a one-over-par 73, he dropped three shots on the last two holes to leave his fans groaning in disappointment.
McIlroy, bidding to complete a career grand slam of the four majors, failed to register a single birdie as he struggled to a five-over 77 leaving him five strokes off the pace.
"Just one of those days," said McIlroy. "You have to try to forget about it and move on. To be honest with you, I would be feeling a lot worse about myself if I hadn't just seen what Jordan did the last two holes.
"I sort of take a bit of heart from that, that I'm still in this golf tournament."
The former world number one dropped two shots on the front nine, another on the 10th and double-bogeyed the tricky 11th to slide backwards
"It's hard to pick a club," McIlroy said of the problems posed by the swirling winds. "It's hard to trust what you have in your hand."
By the time Masters and U.S. Open champion Spieth and then McIlroy arrived on the first tee under a blazing sun, the galleries were packed at least eight deep as the fans eagerly waited for the final pairing to set off in the third round.
Shouts of "Go Jordan" and "Come on Rory", accompanied by wolf whistles and loud cheers, echoed through the Georgian pines when each player was introduced before the heavily anticipated "Spieth & McIlroy" show got underway, but it never delivered.
While McIlroy mainly struggled, Spieth produced his usual blend of brilliant putting, mental strength and patience as he mixed two birdies with a bogey to reach the turn with a three-stroke cushion.
A double-bogey at the tricky 11th, where he missed the green to the right with his approach and ended up three-putting, sent groans through the gallery but he quickly rebounded with birdies at the 12th, 14th and 15th to forge four shots clear.
"I played better than I scored today," Spieth said after ending his round with a bogey on 17 and a double at the last.
"It was a really tough finish to go from holding a four-shot lead ... it's tough to swallow that. But I'm in the lead after 54 holes. If you told me that at the beginning of the week, I'd be obviously very pleased."
(Editing by Steve Keating)