On Tuesday, McIlroy laid out his plan for the week. He explained that he wants to pick up strokes at Augusta National’s four par fives, the 2nd, 8th, 13th, and 15th, and “play the other holes conservatively and smartly”.
Take par, and the if odd “birdie or two comes up from them, that’s great”. He’s playing it cagey. Right now, McIlroy simply wants to make sure that he is in reach of the leader – it already seems likely to be Jordan Spieth – come Sunday. Last year he played so erratically over the first 27 holes, which he covered in three-over par, that by midway through his second round he was 14 shots off the lead. He pulled eight of them back over the next 45 holes, but the poor start left him too much to do. This year, he just wants to be in distance at the weekend. It is a plan that demands a lot of faith from his many fans, and would try the nerves of a more inexperienced player.
Altogether, McIlroy played those par fives in four under par. He picked up a birdie at the 2nd, but then missed a six-foot putt on the wicked little downhill 4th, Flowering Crab Apple, and then had to make a nervy four-foot putt coming back the other way. His putter was running tepid. He ran through the 5th and 6th in even par, but did pick up one of those bonus birdies on the 7th, with a left-to-right putt from eight feet. That put him at one under. Trouble was that by that point, Spieth was back in the clubhouse, having shot a 66, and Jason Day was only a shot behind him at five under, and was making his way around the turn and into the back nine. McIlroy was faced, then, with the threat that they might pull too far ahead.
Earlier this week McIlroy joked that he was only just “clinging on at the minute” to Day and Spieth, after “what Jordan did here last year, what Jason did during the summer”. And felt a little like that again now, as they raced away while he brought up the rear in the last group out on the first day. At the long uphill 8th, he missed a 12-foot putt for birdie. But he did pick up another stroke at the 9th, following up a long drive with a brilliant approach to four feet. That put him two under for the front nine, heading on in to Amen Corner, where the wind was whipping around in great gusts as the sun started to settle down in the sky.
McIlroy slipped further back when he made a mess of his drive at the 11th, which troubled almost everyone who came that way, and saw only three birdies all day. He thumped his drive far right into the trees, forcing the stewards to scatter the crowd to make way for his second shot. He had to hack his way out, and a wedge into the green left him pin high and still 25 feet shy. Two putts put him back to one under, which, at five shots back felt uncomfortably distant from Spieth’s lead, even for a man playing a cautious hand.
But then came a timely reminder of why he was determined to play this way, as the huge scoreboards ticked over to reveal a fresh set of ugly numbers by Day’s name, as he dropped five shots at the 15th, 16th, and 17th.
Soon after, McIlroy produced a little magic on the 13th, that long sweeping dog leg out of Amen Corner. He cracked his drive over the tree tips and far down the fairway, to leave himself 170 yards out. He hit his approach over the creek to 20 feet of the pin, and then made the putt for an eagle, drawing forth one last late-afternoon great roar from the booze-sozzled, sun-dazzled gallery, which must have rolled all the way up the hill to the clubhouse. Three under felt a little more like it. Four under, which he reached when he made a 12-foot birdie putt after knocking his first way eagle attempt way past the hole. He was sitting second, two shots back from Spieth.
McIlroy undid his good work with a messy finish. One bogey at the par-three 16th. And another, the most careless of the lot, on the last after his second shot plugged straight into a bunker. He came home in 70. Two under, four shots off the lead. In touch, for sure, and so not far from where he wanted to be. But it would be a brave man who let Spieth lead get any much further ahead on Friday.
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