Augusta, Ga. – The early returns are in for Rory McIlroy at the Masters, and so far all is good.
The swing is fine, and so are the ribs. Perhaps more importantly, all seems well in the space between his ears.
Now comes the real test, with a rare career Grand Slam there for the taking.
On a day when par seemed a good score, McIlroy did just a little bit better, shooting a 1-under 71 Friday to inch near the top of the leaderboard in the one major championship he has never won.
It could have been better, as most golf rounds tend to be. Heading into what is expected to be a wet weekend, though, it was just what McIlroy needed to put himself in position for the green jacket that once slipped so agonizingly away.
“I’ve always been comfortable around the lead,” McIlroy said in what seemed like a bit of a message to the rest of the field. “It’s a place that I’m thankfully quite familiar with and know how to deal with.”
That wasn’t always the case, as anyone who is even a casual student of the history of this tournament knows. It was 2011 when McIlroy began Sunday with a four-shot advantage after leading the entire tournament.
What happened next might have broken a lesser player. For all anyone knows, it still may haunt McIlroy every time he drives down Magnolia Lane.
A triple bogey on the 10th hole after a drive into the cabins left of the fairway finally cost him the lead. He ended up shooting 80, and Charl Schwartzel won his first and – so far – only major championship.
McIlroy would bounce back to win the U.S. Open in a romp two months later, so there was no immediate hangover. He would later add two PGA championships and one British Open title to his trophy case.
Try as he might, though, he still hasn’t been able to crack the code at Augusta National.
That could change in his 10th Masters, and there is some precedent on his side. Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were both playing in their 10th Masters when they finally won, and Arnold Palmer won his first at the age of 28 – the same age McIlroy is now.
“There’s a lot of different comparisons you could make,” McIlroy said earlier this week. “But it’s all really meaningless unless you go out there and actually do it.”
McIlroy was meticulous in his preparations for this Masters, coming up from Florida to play 54 holes with members last week and 36 a few weeks before that. He’s coming off a win in Arnold Palmer’s tournament last month, and his confidence in his game is high.
He’s also accepted the idea that pars are good on Augusta National, especially when the winds are swirling like they were in Friday’s second round. A day after opening with a 69 he was at 4-under 140, with a late Saturday afternoon tee time.
“Sometimes pars might be a little bit boring and you might feel as if you want to get a little bit more out of your round,” McIlroy said.
“But as you look up the leaderboard and you’re still there around the lead, that’s taken awhile for me to adjust to.”
Spieth in good shape
Given Jordan Spieth’s past experiences at Augusta National, there was no reason to panic.
It was the front nine. It was the second round. It was nowhere near the worst he’s been through at the Masters.
So Spieth remained calm despite losing a two-shot lead on the first two holes. He excused it as typical “punches” from a daunting golf course in difficult conditions.
He responded by making two birdies over the final six holes, helping him recover from the inauspicious start.
He finished with a 2-over 74 that left him 4 under for the tournament.
“I’ve taken a lot of punches on this golf course, and in tournaments in general,” Spieth said. “I told (caddy) Michael (Greller), ‘Look, when this course plays tough, I’m good for a double here or some bogeys there. Let’s make these the only ones.’”
Spieth began the day at 6 under. He squandered that before more than half the field teed off.
The 2015 Masters champion pushed his tee shot at the par-4 first way right. He failed to get his second shot back to the fairway and then left his third one short of the green. He missed an 11-footer for bogey.
He pulled his second tee shot left and then missed a 5-footer for par. It opened the door for everyone else on the leaderboard. It also could have been a devastating start for Spieth.
“I’m not going to downgrade my skill level, but I’m also not going to downgrade my ability to take punches and fight back on this course,” he said. “I’m still in a great position.”