Rory and Tiger paired together, tied on six shots under at the start of Masters Sunday, could have been a dream scenario.
The problem was that they were 10 shots back from Jordan Spieth, whose play over the previous three days had been as good, in its own way, as all but the very best the two of them had produced in their time. Nike’s copy writers might have cut at least a couple off Spieth’s lead if they had been writing the script. With that, this would be pretty much the same scene they had set in the advert they released at the beginning of the week – seven days and an age ago – which showed the young McIlroy watching wide-eyed as Woods won the Masters back in 1997. The ad ended with the pair of them, McIlroy an adult now, hitting a couple of drives and walking off down the fairway together.
And so it went, at 2.30 in the afternoon. Right then the tournament was still alive with possibility, as every Sunday always is at the Masters. If Woods could just conjure up the form he found on the front nine on Saturday, when he went out in 32, well what then? And if McIlroy could manage to play all 18 in the way he did the back nine on Friday, when he came home in 31, who was to say what would happen? Spieth had said that he was going to try and get round Augusta without looking up at the leaderboards. But you cannot shut out the roars, not when they are as loud as the ones the patrons give to McIlroy and Woods when they score birdies and eagles. The crowd around them on Sundayy was, by a distance almost as great as Spieth’s lead, the biggest of the week.
On Saturday Woods’ first drive flew straight down the middle, a herald of good things to come. On Sunday his first drive went way left, over on to the 9th fairway, and that too was a sign of what lay ahead. He hit two fairways all day and did not find a single one on the front nine. That first one was the same spot he had hit at the start of his first practice round, back on Monday. Then he had escaped with a second shot that fell within two feet of the pin. This time he could find only the top lip of the greenside bunker. He still got away with par. So did McIlroy, his made in much more straightforward fashion.
At the par-five 2nd Woods went left into the trees, another familiar spot for him. His second shot was superb, right into the heart of the green. But a three-putt meant par. It was the same for McIlroy, who had to chip in after his approach fell on the wrong side of the bunker at the front left. At the 3rd he was over the back of the green while Woods’ absurdly long tee-shot, in the second cut right up on the lower slopes of the approach, was wasted when he missed an eight-foot putt. And at the 4th Woods had to clamber out of a bunker and dropped his first shot while doing it. McIlroy, on the other hand, made a superb tee-shot but missed his putt and walked away with another par.
By then the final pairs were out, bunched up in the corner of the course. While Woods was missing his putt on the 3rd, Phil Mickelson was making a birdie on the 2nd, a few yards over the way, and up on the hill beyond that Spieth and Justin Rose were both picking up shots on the 1st. And one knew then, if one did not already, that, wherever the real action was going to be, it was not with Woods and McIlroy, even though McIlroy picked up birdies at the 6th and 8th.
At the 9th Woods caught a hidden root with his club while he was trying to chop his way out from underneath a tree. He immediately hugged his right hand to his belly and doubled over in agony. Another man might have withdrawn, especially after, evidently still in huge pain, he hit both his first and second shots at the 10th into the trees. But Woods had worked so hard to make it to this Masters. He had, as he has said more than once, spent “thousands and thousands” of hours practising since he pulled out of the Phoenix Open at the start of February. So he gritted his teeth and got on with it. He even made an eagle at the 13th, with a brilliant 25-foot putt. He finished one under for the day and five under overall, tied for 17th – an astonishing performance in the circumstances. He says he will be taking “a little time off” now, so he can “go back to the drawing board and refine what I’m doing”.
As for McIlroy, he did find another streak of fine form over the back nine, which he completed in 32, with birdies at the 11th, 13th, 14th and 18th. That meant he shot 66, his best round of the week. He just needed to be a little bit sharper on the first 27 holes he played, which he covered in three over par. Well as he played in patches, one got the sense that, four years after he blew his own four-shot lead on the Sunday here in 2011, he is still not entirely at ease on this course. He said he would have taken 12 under at the start of the week and was gracious enough to praise Spieth for his wonderful play, and for “keeping his foot down”. They are now ranked No1 and No2 in the world. Spieth’s win, McIlroy said, was “going to be great for the game”. There was a glint in his eye as he said it.
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