Sport Golf

Sunday 4 December 2016

Patience pays off as ‘satisfied’ Rory McIlroy remains on course

World No 1 overcomes early glitches but magic Jordan shines with sparkling 64

Karl McGinty

Published 10/04/2015 | 02:30

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland watches his drive off the second tee during first round play of the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Course, Georgia
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland watches his drive off the second tee during first round play of the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Course, Georgia
Rory McIlroy waves to the crowd as he finishes out the 18th hole during first round play of the Masters
Leader Jordan Spieth hits a shot from the bunker on the 10th hole on his way to the lead after the opening round at the Masters, World No 1 Rory McIlroy lies seven shots behind
Tiger Woods feels the pain after a poor shot
Justin Rose is delighted after his round

There was more grit than glory from Rory McIlroy yesterday as he clawed his way back from a nervy start at Augusta National to complete his opening round at the Masters in one-under par 71.

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McIlroy admitted he'd been "a little nervous but mostly excited" as he set out on his history-making quest for a career Grand Slam, and the pressure showed on the front nine.

If the World No 1 is to win The Masters, he and the rest of the world knows he must perform better on Augusta National's par-fives; in his anxiety to set this record straight he hooked his drive left of he long second.

A couple of duffed short-game shots that might have been borrowed from the recent repertoire of Tiger Woods also blighted his front nine but, even after an untidy bogey at 11, McIlroy kept his vow to remain patient and reaped his just reward down the stretch.

"It could have been a round that got away from me but I just kept telling myself to stay patient, realising it's a 72-hole golf tournament and I don't need to press too much," he added.

"It was a tricky day; the wind was swirling a little bit, the pin positions were tough.

"Anything under par was a pretty good score. It was nice to pick off a couple of birdies on the back nine on the par-fives and I'm pretty satisfied with the day's work.

"I feel the way I'm driving the ball if I can keep doing that and just be a little more efficient with my iron play and give myself more opportunities I'll hopefully be right there at the end of the week. All in all, I'm happy with my start."

DIFFICULT

Others didn't find scoring as difficult. Especially Jordan Spieth, the brilliant Texan who ripped into a three strokes lead with an eight-under 64 that simply dazzled in the blazing sun.

Spieth, runner-up to Bubba Watson on his Masters debut last year, was in phenomenal form, especially with the putter, as he raced to within one stroke of Nick Price's Augusta National course record.

The 21-year-old Texan had a 11 one-putt greens yesterday, his day summed-up by the 20-footer he holed for birdie at 18. Spieth, who has won three times in his last 11 outings, leads by three from 2011 runner-up Jason Day, Charley Hoffman, Justin Rose and Ernie Els.

Tiger's dreams of rediscovering his former self at Augusta appeared fanciful as he battled his way to a one-over 73 although he said afterwards that he "felt good" but lamented two "dumb" mistakes in his round,

Yet Tom Watson was a real headline-maker, at 65 becoming the oldest player to dip below par at the Masters as he brilliantly matched McIlroy's 71.

"It's fun to be able to at least be in red figures at Augusta," Watson said. "At my age, that's a minor miracle."

If McIlroy felt under any added pressure on the first tee because of the looming career Grand Slam it didn't show in his opening drive, which drew gasps of awe from the packed crowds surrounding the tee box as it screamed 324 yards into left fairway.

McIlroy played that opener well, going within a hair's breadth of his first birdie in 22 Masters rounds at Augusta's daunting first with an 11-foot putt.

Yet the pressure the Holywood native plainly feels to perform better on Augusta's par-fives showed itself minutes later on the second tee, when he hooked his tee shot left and so deep into the towering pines, the ball bounced on a side slope and straight into the stream bed.

Lee Trevino once joked that Delta Airlines had a ticket desk in that perilous spot to the left of two, where visiting golfers could book their early flights home.

McIlroy had no such intention. Faced with a choice between fight or flight he manfully chose the latter.

Dropping his ball under penalty on the pine needles, McIlroy smothered down on a mid-iron and hooked a low ball beneath the branches and out onto the fairway, 137 yards from the hole. He then hit an exquisite, towering 9-iron to within inches of the dangerous back pin and holed the putt for a splendid par.

In six previous visits to the Masters, McIlroy has seriously under-performed on Augusta National's par fives, ceding 27 shots to Mickelson on them in that time. Yet after his tee shot, the Ulsterman could be happy to post a par to Lefty's two-putt birdie at two. He'd be dissatisfied, however, with his par four at the short third.

McIlroy's second duff shot came just shy of the par-three sixth, his chip failing to make it over the top of the steep rise between him and the flag before rolling back almost to his feet.

With typical resolve, he rebounded well, making a glorious birdie at seven, a hole he has not found easy in the past. Mind you, being able to hit a drive 329 yards straight down this narrow fairway offered McIlroy the perfect platform from which to hit a 121-yard wedge to six feet.

In the past, he has flirted with the large bunker to the right of the eighth fairway but this time he flew that trap. Yet this fine 308-yard uphill tee shot yielded naught as McIlroy missed the green right, chipped to the fringe and took two to get down from 15 feet.

After untidy bogeys at six and seven, Mickelson rubbed Rory's nose in it on eight by hitting the shot of the day, a 244-yard 3-wood to two feet for eagle.

One of the principal reasons why many, including McIlroy himself, feel that he has just one top-10 at the Masters (last year's tie for eighth) is the young man's aggressive nature, which he shares with Greg Norman.

Certainly, McIlroy's second into nine yesterday stirred memories of the Australian's infamous, ill-fated approach there on Sunday in 1996 as it pitched near the pin and sucked back down heartbreak hill. Rory holed a 10-footer downhill to save par.

Yet there would be no such reprieve at 11 after McIlroy narrowly missed the green right, though his drought at the par-fives was broken at 13 after he hit a 182-yard approach from the semi-rough high on the right of the fairway to the heart of the green.

One could almost hear Jack Nicklaus intoning 'told you so' as his young friend two-putted from 67 feet for birdie four.

DISCRETION

He then placed discretion before aggression at 15 to register the fascinating birdie four that saw him dip below par for the first time.

Blocked out after hitting a giant tee-shot way up the left, McIlroy was wide right of the greenside bunker before cleverly leaving the pin to its own devices with the chip.

The reward was a 22-foot putt for birdie which he holed to ease into the red numbers for the first time before finishing out his opening round in assured fashion.

"I haven't put too much pressure on myself. I obviously know what I can achieve this week but I'm not letting myself think about it too much. I'm just trying to play it one round at a time and today was a pretty good day," said McIlroy.

Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke's two-over 74 was a laudable effort after two double-bogey sixes in three holes on the front nine.

"You'd think that I've been here enough times to know where I should miss it and where I shouldn't, then two three-putts to follow them up," lamented the Ulsterman, playing in his 13th Masters.

"Obviously I didn't mean to hit them there. One was a poor shot (fifth) and the other was a little bit of mud on it that I didn't see."

Clarke three-putted 13 and two-putted 15 for par after hitting "lovely shots" into both holes. "My speed was a little off," he confessed. "All in all I had lots of chances. Two-over is not bad."

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