By Frank Pingue

 

AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) - Patrick Reed used a pair of back-nine eagles to fight off a spirited charge from Rory McIlroy on Saturday and open up a three-shot cushion going into the final round of the U.S. Masters, where he will try to capture his first major title.

 

Reed, who began the day with a two-shot lead, took full advantage of a damp Augusta National layout with a five-under 67 that left him on 14-under for the week and staring down a leaderboard filled with some of the biggest names in golf.

 

The former Augusta State University standout has never before held the 54-hole lead in a major championship but remains adamant that he is not about to change anything at this point.

 

"Mentally, I'm just treating it like any other golf tournament, any other round," Reed told reporters. "Just go out and do what I know how to do, which is hit the ball somewhat straight, knock it on the green and let the putter work."

 

A five-times winner on the PGA Tour, Reed has dominated the par-fives -- 13-under for the week -- but kicked it up a notch late in the round with eagles at the 13th and 15th holes, the latter when he chipped in from 27 yards.

The 27-year-old American, competing in his fifth Masters, had never broken 70 at Augusta National prior to this week but has been nearly untouchable and his three-round total is only four shots off the tournament's record-winning score.

Northern Irishman McIlroy sits alone in second place after he capped his seven-under 65 with a 17-foot birdie putt and will have his best shot yet at trying to complete his collection of golf's four major titles.

McIlroy had already made three birdies before a chip-in eagle at the eighth and then scrambled to save par after his ball found the azaleas behind the 13th green. He added two more birdies, including his emphatic putt on the final green.

McIlroy, who threw away a four-shot lead in the final round at Augusta in 2011 when he was still chasing a maiden major, has since captured wins at each of golf's three other blue riband events and is closer than ever to completing his collection.

RYDER CUP REUNION

"I feel like all aspects of my game are in really good shape, and I'm much more relaxed," McIlroy said.

"This isn't my first time in this position now. I've been able to close the deal a few times before this, and I have that to fall back on tomorrow."

The four-times major winner will play alongside Reed in the final round where the two will renew their duel from the 2016 Ryder Cup where they traded birdies in a scintillating stretch of oneupmanship that was soon deemed a classic.

Rickie Fowler, considered one of the world's best players without a major title to his name, equaled McIlroy for the low round of the week with a seven-under 65 that left him alone in third place, five back of Reed.

Spaniard Jon Rahm (65) eagled the par-five eighth during a flawless round that also included five birdies to sit alone in fourth place, six shots off the lead, and one shot clear of Swede Henrik Stenson (70).

Sitting a further shot back were twice winner Bubba Watson (68), England's Tommy Fleetwood (66) and Australian Marc Leishman (73).

Tiger Woods, who began the day 13 shots behind Reed, failed to mount any sort of charge. The American opened with two bogeys en route to an even-par 72 that ended any slim hopes he may have had of slipping on the Green Jacket for a fifth time on Sunday.

The former world number one came into the week as one of the favorites after showing solid form this year in his comeback from injury but failed to conjure up any of the old magic he once seemed to produce on command at Augusta National.

"It's been scratchy this week. I just haven't gotten it done," Woods lamented. "I feel like I'm driving it better than I have all year, but I am not capitalizing on it. And when I did miss, I missed in the wrong spots."

(Editing by John O'Brien)