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Rory McIlroy fell out of contention at the Masters on Saturday with a third-round 77.

Bad day for McIlroy, Garcia

Front 9 drives playing partners from contention

– If anybody ever needed a hug, Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia were the guys.

Good thing they had each other.

On a miserable day at the Masters where they had to laugh to keep from crying, two of the world’s best – and best-known – golfers each turned a shot at the green jacket into a comedy of errors.

They came into Saturday’s third round one shot off the lead. Neither broke 40 on the front nine. McIlroy shot 77 to wind up at 1-over par. Garcia was slightly better – his 75 left him in the red, at 1 under, still eight shots off the lead.

This was the story of two great players laying a huge egg on the big stage. The absurdity of the whole thing came to a head on the 12th green, when they both dropped putts for the first birdie of either player’s round. To celebrate the feat, they shared a mocking embrace as they made their way to No. 13.

“We needed to feel a little love from someone out there,” McIlroy said. “It was a nice moment in a round filled with not-too-good moments.”

For McIlroy, it started getting bad on the first swing, a blocked drive into the pine straw that led to a double bogey. That was the first of three 6s he posted on the front nine en route to a 42.

This year, he got it over with on Saturday. Last year, it was a 43 on the back on Sunday. He had a four-shot lead coming into that final round. It dwindled away, and by the 13th hole he was standing on the tee box, head in the crook of his elbow, watching a chance at his first major slip away.

“Seems like every year I come out here, I throw a bad nine holes out there,” McIlroy said.

At least he has his major; McIlroy overcame last year’s debacle and won by eight strokes at the U.S. Open two months later.

Garcia? He’s still waiting.

He may no longer be the Best Player to Never Win a Major, but at 32, Garcia still has the talent and the time to break through for one or more. He has finished in the top 12 in the last three and was shooting at pins the first two days of this year’s Masters to put himself very much in the picture.

Asked after the second round whether he was ready to win, he said he honestly didn’t know.

Then he went out and answered the question: No.

Yet even with four bogeys on the front side, Garcia was the low man in the twosome heading to the turn.

“Pfffft,” he said when asked to compare and contrast his round with McIlroy’s. “Hard to say. I think it’s kind of similar. We couldn’t really feed off each other’s good energy because there pretty much wasn’t any. We couldn’t get anything going. The bad holes were really bad and our good holes were bad.”

Both players finished the day with a pair of birdies over the last four holes – maybe something to build `on, or maybe nothing more than a brief-but-needed reminder that, yes, they really can play this game.

When it was over, they shook hands, shared a smile and hugged again. Arm-in-arm, they walked off the green and through the chute that leads to the scoring area – a couple of Sunshine Boys trying to put the worst part behind them. A bit later, they were in the interview area together, where they were practically finishing each other’s sentences.

“If you can’t laugh at yourself, what can you laugh at?” McIlroy said. “It was good to have this guy by my side even if we didn’t play so well.”

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