Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy stand firm and prepare for Masters duel

Rory McIlroy Walking

Mere mortals in the 89-man field gave the impression of trying to climb an ice wall while wearing slippers as Jordan Spieth had surged to eight under par and a five-shot lead.

Given the American’s previous for dominating the Masters, the notion of everyone else packing up and heading home was a live one. Most remarkably Spieth was only four holes into his second round.

Rory McIlroy was battling to remain as part of the Augusta National conversation, having seen an encouraging Friday start upset by a double bogey at the 4th and a dropped shot on the 5th. He was one under par, where he remained until slipping back by a further stroke at the 11th.

By that point Spieth had finally displayed the fallibility which was necessary to turn this major into something at least approaching competitive. The 22-year-old four-putted the 5th for his first scorecard aberration of the tournament. Even then onlookers shrugged.

By late afternoon, though, McIlroy had staged a wonderful – and maybe pivotal – recovery. That owed everything to a level of patience not previously evident on Masters appearances. In the context of a ferocious day – whipping winds and dangerous pin placements were key to that – the Northern Irishman’s 71 stole four shots on the field average.

Spieth holed from 15ft at the last to stay four under and keep the lead, of one, from McIlroy. The pair will be in each other’s company for the first time on the weekend of a major during round three. Never mind the golf, the galleries following this group will be a sight to behold.

This McIlroy placing matters because, unlike on his last three Augusta visits, he is not playing Saturday catch-up from an impossible position. Spieth, the hunted, is in direct view.

“I’ve been concentrating on myself out there because, if you start to think about anyone else … I’ve only got the mental capacity to focus on me right now, especially with how tough it is,” McIlroy said.

“I want to win this golf tournament and I want to finish on the lowest score possible, and whoever is ahead of me at that point, I just want to finish one better than that. So it doesn’t make a difference who it is, to be honest.”

It will be left to the rest of us to appreciate the significance of this pair in a grapple for the Green Jacket. Golf, like any sport, benefits from rivalry.

Spieth’s wobble, culminating in a 74, was irksome enough without a warning for slow play, delivered initially on the 11th. “Have fun getting put on the clock at 11 of Augusta, then play 11 and 12 rushing with gusting winds,” Spieth said. “It’s not fun. It’s not fun at all.”

When Spieth regroups, he must convince himself that this marked his one poor day from four; and despite it he still tops the leaderboard. He denied any sense of strain. “I know I’ve got a little break after this,” he added. “I have two more days to give it everything I have.”

McIlroy rightly claimed his 18 holes were “up there” with his finest at Augusta. The highlights included a 40ft birdie putt on the 16th and a converted effort from 6ft at the last for par. The latter drew a fist-pump and the first demonstrative evidence that McIlroy firmly believes he can, on Sunday evening, end what is ostensibly a short wait for the career grand slam.

“I sort of feel that Augusta owes me something and I have come with that attitude,” McIlroy said. “I have come here to get something that I should have had a long time ago. You need to be so focused and in control of your emotions here. It’s about not getting fazed and mentally I have been good the last couple of days.”

In completing a gripping narrative, an amateur gatecrashed this party of golf’s luminaries – for 17 holes at least. Bryson DeChambeau would be regarded as a maverick, possibly to the eventual point of annoyance, if he could not back up left-field comment with first-class performance.

The American amateur’s efforts over the first two rounds were even more impressive given Spieth was among his playing partners. Nobody taught this 22-year-old, who has every iron at the same length, about bowing to reputation. And yet DeChambeau did learn about how cruel golf can be; a horrid time on the 18th, where he was forced to play three from the tee, catapulted him from a share of second to tied eighth. This was hardly a disaster but still seemed unjust.

It would be folly to ignore others on a tightly compacted leaderboard. More than 30 players will still harbour reasonable aspirations of victory over a weekend in which further testing conditions are promised. Needless to say, nobody will even approach Spieth’s winning tally from 2015 of 18 under par. No sub-71 score was recorded on Friday.

Standing still represented second-round progress, such was the scale of Augusta’s day-two test. Ian Poulter was among those unable to do that, the Englishman failing to capitalise on his Thursday 69 by faring nine shots worse. Paul Casey took similarly fierce blows from the Georgian venue, eventually signing for a 77 and total of plus two.

Bubba Watson survived the six-over cut by one. There was no such fortune for Phil Mickelson, who made a career-worst Masters round of 79.

Ian Woosnam added an 81 to his first-round 82 before declaring this was his Masters farewell. If it seems sad for the 1991 champion to bow out this way – having made only one Augusta cut since 2001 – there is the seriously mitigating circumstance of a long-term back problem. Enough is enough for the Welshman, once the finest player in the world.

“That’s my last go,” Woosnam said. “I am not fit enough to play with my bad back. Every time I play this course it just seizes on me and I can’t swing the club properly. I am in pain all the way round. It’s time for me to sit back and watch. It’s a shame to finish off playing like that but you can only do your best. Never mind, I’ve still got a Green Jacket.”

Woosnam, like every other onlooker over the next 36 holes, should find the countdown as to who claims this one completely compelling. It could not have been more appropriately scripted. Find a television screen, popcorn and strap yourself in.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ewan Murray at Augusta, for The Guardian on Saturday 9th April 2016 00.13 Europe/London

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