Resurgent Rory McIlroy rekindles Masters fire with a 66

Grand Slam dream is still alive after opening 75 is atoned for with stunning second round

Rory McIlroy looks for his ball during the opening round on the second day at Augusta. Photograph: David J Phillip/AP

Rory McIlroy looks for his ball during the opening round on the second day at Augusta. Photograph: David J Phillip/AP

 

The trouble with the 2020 version of Rory McIlroy is that you just never know which version of the one man you’re going to get.

Take Augusta National in Georgia, USA. Dateline: November 13th 2020. And, yes, it is a Friday the 13th.

One moment he’s wandering through wild flora searching for a ball, and jokingly apologising to a Augusta National Golf Club member for his having to join the search party and resulting in getting some dirt on his green jacket. The joke is a deflection on his reason for being among the azaleas and dogwoods in the first place.

The next? Well, that’s when McIlroy - four-time Major champion, former longtime world number one - is only going about the place as if he owns it, showcasing his greatness.

The transformation was extraordinary, in a matter of hours.

By the time McIlroy had finished his first round, having returned in the morning dew for a catalogue of errors that ultimately saw him sign off on a 75, it looked as if his interest in this 84th edition of the Masters tournament had finished before it ever got a chance to ignite. The private jet home to Florida was on a speed dial for a quick exit.

Only, he didn’t call it. And wouldn’t need to.

It’s amazing what some soul-searching can do. Oh, and some quick-fire work, in tandem with caddie Harry Diamond. Between the two of them, barely having time for a bite to eat, whatever kinks in McIlroy’s swing that were so out-of-sync in the morning’s horror show were ironed out in a rushed session on the range (hitting 5- and 9-irons and 3-wood), “just trying to get myself to release it a bit more and be committed to my swing.”

Where balls went left or right without warning during that first round - whether into bushes, as on the Par 5 13th, or into the water on the Par 3 16th in the morning as he finished undone work from the previous day - McIlroy was a transformed man on his return to the course for a second round which saw him add a 66 to his opening 75 to ensure he would be hanging around for the weekend.

Rory McIlroy shot a fine second round of 66 at Augusta. Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA
Rory McIlroy shot a fine second round of 66 at Augusta. Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA

The big difference for McIlroy came with his approach play. In both the first and second rounds, McIlroy hit 10 of 14 fairways; however, in the first round, he only hit nine of 18 greens-in-regulation, while in the second round he found 15 of 18.

Such wild swings of fortune have been experienced by McIlroy at Augusta before, back in 2013 he shot a 79 in the third round and rebounded with a 69 on the Sunday for a 10 stroke differential. The difference this time is that his rebound provided a lifeline, to get him through to the weekend and, although on the fringes, nevertheless with a chance to keep alive his hopes of completing the career Grand Slam. A slim hope, maybe; but some hope.

McIlroy’s last act of Thursday night in fading light had been to hit his approach into the bunker on the 10th hole, where he marked it. On his return to complete his round, he got off on the wrong foot in splashing out to 12 feet and failing to save par. But worse was to come, and in a way he did well to salvage a bogey on the 12th after a wild hook into the undergrowth. And, again, on the 16th after hitting his tee shot - “That is so bad,” he said to the ball in midair - into the water. In signing for a 75, that could have been the end of the road.

“I was thinking get this ball up and down, play the last few holes in three- or four-under and get in and I did the complete opposite.”

McIlroy’s response - frustrating for the player as much as those watching - was to provide proof that the game is still there with a bogey-free 66 that produced six birdies. “I turned it around nicely and at least give myself a chance going into the weekend,” he said.

Of his travails in the morning, McIlroy claimed the series of missed shots was contributed to by between yardages. “Whenever I try to take speed off, I go left and I’m dragging it across,” said McIlroy, who said he had he been given a “tough talking to” between rounds by his friend and Augusta National member Jimmy Dunne.

“I’d been playing so good and to go into the first round and shoot 75 ….. I was like, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ I knew it was in there, it was about trusting it a little more.”

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