AUGUSTA, Ga. — The final pairing for the weekend at the Masters is a dream combo: Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, winners of four of the past six majors.
But nobody expected them to take the paths they did Friday at Augusta National.
In the toughest scoring conditions at the Masters in nearly a decade, Spieth had a five-shot lead that nearly disappeared before he saved par from a bunker with a 15-foot putt on the final hole for 2-over 74 and a one-shot lead over McIlroy at 4-under 140.
"It was very tough to stay cool," Spieth said. "You could say, 'Looked like you got emotional out there.' I mean, you guys try it. That was a hard golf course."
McIlroy, who trailed by as many as eight shots at one point, put a career Grand Slam in clear view by making birdie on both par 5s on the back nine and picking up a bonus birdie with a 40-foot putt on the par-3 16th for 71. That matched the lowest round of the second round, the first time no one broke 70 at the Masters since the third round of 2007.
"You just have to look at the scores and you can see how tough it is (Friday)," McIlroy said.
Spieth set a Masters record with his sixth straight round in the lead, and it took a few minutes for him to appreciate that after trying to survive wind gusts that reached 30 mph and a course so crusty that even 2-foot putts made him nervous.
His 140 was the highest 36-hole lead at Augusta since 2007. Friday's scoring average was 75.02, also the highest in nine years.
"I'm still in the lead. I couldn't ask for much better than leading," said Spieth, just the second defending champion to hold the outright 36-hole lead. The other was Arnold Palmer in 1959; he finished third.
Among the things that didn't make Spieth happy: His 74 was his first over-par round in 10 career Masters rounds. Also, officials put Spieth's group on the clock for slow play at No. 11. With their pace of play being monitored, there was the risk of a two-shot penalty.
"I'm being … timed," Spieth was heard saying to his caddie at 11. "I want to take my time, wait out the gusts."
Though no penalty was imposed, Spieth was far from delighted. His group also was put on the clock Thursday.
"Tough, too, when you're put on the clock in Amen Corner and trying to battle gusting winds but have to hit the shot fast; otherwise there's a potential of getting strokes," he said.
Spieth and McIlroy tee off in the last group today, paired for the 13th time in a tournament but the first on the weekend in a major championship.
Given the conditions — more of the same was expected today — this felt more like everyone against Augusta National than Spieth versus McIlroy.
"It would add a lot of excitement and buzz and atmosphere to the tournament, obviously," said McIlroy, in his best 36-hole position in the Masters since 2011, when he was the outright leader (he finished tied for 15th).
"If you start to think about anyone else … I've only got the mental capacity to focus on me right now, especially how tough it is out there."
Spieth said it would be exciting to play with McIlroy but "I'd rather play with someone less threatening, to be honest."
And then there was this: 24 players were at or within five shots of the lead.
"There's the potential (today) for someone to shoot a few under and move up into the lead from outside the top 25," Spieth said. "There's a potential for that with what I saw on the last six holes (Friday), the way the course was playing."
Said McIlroy: "The most comfortable thing for me on this golf course is knowing that even if you are five or six shots back, things can change quite quickly." Five years ago, he took a four-shot lead into the final round, closed with 80 and finished 10 shots behind.
Danny Lee bogeyed his last two holes for 72 and was two shots back with Scott Piercy (72). The only other players under par were Hideki Matsuyama (72), Brandt Snedeker (72) and Soren Kjeldsen (74).
Dustin Johnson birdied all the par 5s for one of the other three 71s of the day — Troy Merritt and Daniel Berger had the others — and was in the group at par that included U.S. Amateur champion Bryson DeChambeau, who felt the sting of Augusta on the final hole.
DeChambeau, 22, was playing the best round of the day at 3 under and was 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 72. Tied for eighth, he is the first amateur in the top 10 after any Masters round since Ryan Moore after 36 holes in 2005.
Spieth's par on the last hole not only kept him in the lead, it sent Phil Mickelson home because of the 10-shot rule for the cut. Mickelson shot a Masters career-high 79 and finished at 7 over to miss the cut by one.
The Golf Channel, the PGA Tour and ESPN contributed to this report.