McIlroy dares to dream again after glorious eagle
RORY McILROY added to his modest trophy haul at the Masters yesterday, a pair of crystal goblets for a glorious eagle three at Augusta National's eighth hole, but this stirring effort could be of far greater significance to the 23-year-old Ulsterman come tomorrow.
That eagle, fashioned by a stroke of genius and a fortunate bounce, came at a critical time for McIlroy, putting the spring back into his step and reigniting his hopes this weekend of completing back-to-back victories at the Majors.
After a deflating start, in which two bogeys in the first three holes appeared to suck the wind out of his sails, McIlroy needed something special to get his Masters back on course and that eagle did the trick.
In all, he'd pick up four shots over the final 11 holes of a second-round 70, which left the world No 2 just three-shy of the clubhouse lead of Augusta National specialist Freddie Couples and in hot pursuit of golf's most coveted prizes, the Green Jacket.
Couples, who has finished in the top-15 here in each of the three years since turning 50, followed-up on Thursday's 68 in benign conditions with an equally creditable 71 as gusting breezes and blazing sunshine made the course play exponentially harder.
The 1992 Masters champion, led 2009-winner Angel Cabrera of Argentina by one ... but many eyes turned towards McIlroy as he hove into contention on two-under.
The second day started badly for McIlroy, three-putting at the first for bogey from around 20 feet.
Another dropped shot at the short but beguiling par-four third must have felt like a blow to the solar plexus but McIlroy showed true grit over the crucial next few holes, culminating in a splendid up-and-down for par from a greenside bunker at seven.
He faced a crisis of confidence but is justifiably proud of how he kept his discipline and chipped away for solid pars instead of chasing shadows.
"The big thing that worked for me was discipline. You had to be very disciplined, not go for pins at times," he explained. "I knew par was a good score and I knew if I took my opportunities as they came along, anything under par would be good."
A chance came at eight and he grasped it with both hands. After blasting a fabulous drive into the heart of the fairway at the eighth, then took on the 270-plus-yard uphill, blind shot to the green with his trusty five-wood, which ricocheted off a large bank short and left of the green and rolled to three feet.
Mcllroy at last got an adrenalin boost at this tournament. He rolled in the putt for eagle, only his second at the Masters.
He went on to make a precious par save at nine before picking up back-to-back birdies at 13 and 14, putting him within two of the tournament lead at that point. Though he made a disappointing par at 15 and dropped a shot out of a greenside bunker at the short par-three 16th, McIlroy showed pluck by holing a 20-foot putt for par at 17.
Then he lifted his spirits to new heights going into the weekend with a sweet birdie at the daunting final hole, where he holed from 10 feet for his three.
"It was good to make that putt at the last," said McIlroy. "I didn't play my best on the first few holes and made a lot of good putts for pars on the front nine but that eagle on the eighth really got me going.
"It was a kickstart and I began to hit some really good quality shots. I stayed patient out there when I needed to and it was a good day."
Sadly, Padraig Harrington was stumbling ever-closer to his third missed cut in four years at the Masters yesterday afternoon.
Though the fate of Augusta National debutant Alan Dunbar had already been sealed by Thursday's 83, the Portrush man showed great pluck and played some fine golf as he rebounded with a 77 yesterday.
"I just thought I would go out and try and hit the ball in better places and managed that at times, even though it's hard to do," said the 22-year-old, who finished the tournament on 16-over but walked away from Augusta with his head held high.
Dunbar makes his professional debut next Wednesday week in a Challenge Tour event in Madrid, followed a fortnight later by the Madeira Islands Open and the Scandinavian Masters.
Asked for the outstanding memory of his week in golfing paradise, Dunbar set aside Thursday's ordeal and said: "I'll remember the whole week. What a great experience. I got off to a bad start in the first round but I still enjoyed the experience and I hope to get back some day."
The scale and pristine nature of Augusta National impressed him most.
"Even today, between groups, they were out working on the course and blowing away the leaves and everything. It's just different than any place else," he added.
He'll spend the weekend in Augusta, either watching the Masters in person with friends or on TV, because it's so much easier to follow on the small screen, even if it lacks the atmosphere of mingling with the massive galleries.
"I like watching on TV," he said. "You see more. I have a few friends over from Portrush, I'll see what they want to do and just follow them."
Dunbar's playing companion over the first 36 holes at Augusta, Trevor Immelman, felt for the young Rathmore clubman as he endured Thursday's nightmarish debut.
"I can remember when I made my amateur debut here in 1999 and playing with Gary Player and Steve Stricker the first two days, and only just managing to make the cut right on the number," said the 2008 Masters champion.
"But I really felt for Alan yesterday because he had a really brutal start, bogeying the first and then taking triple at the second, and you don't want to wish that on anybody.
"You could see he looked uncomfortable and not very happy, but all credit to him as he played the back nine yesterday very solid, and he played a little better today.
"He just seemed to be really struggling with the snap hook and that's not ideal," added the South African. "Having only just learned he's now turning pro my only advice to him is to practice hard."
Dunbar, one of the heroes of Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup victory over the US at Royal Aberdeen two years ago, earned his place at Augusta with last summer's splendid win at the British Amateur Championship.
He has the talent to get into the upper reaches of professional golf and almost certainly will return to Augusta National once again.
The Masters, Day 3, live
Set Sp Irl, 8.30/Sky Sp 1, 7.0/BBC2, 7.30