Tiger prowling menacingly behind early pace setter Poulter
McIlroy and Harrington both fail to make cut
AUGUSTA NATIONAL was in the grip of good, old-fashioned Tiger Mania yesterday as the disgraced World No 1 swept menacingly to within two strokes of Englishman Ian Poulter’s clubhouse lead at The US Masters.
It was Black Friday for Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, however, as they missed the cut at the season’s first Major Championship.
This latest blow in a disappointing season has pushed McIlroy beyond breaking-point and the youngster is so disillusioned, he’s planning a complete break from the game.
In stark contrast, three-times Major Champion Padraig Harrington was typically upbeat after crashing out of the Masters on five over par. “I’ve taken a lot out of this week and would fancy myself to win if I was playing next week,” he said after adding a second round 75 to Thursday’s opening 74.
“Thursday did the damage,” confessed Harrington, who played far too inconsistently from tee to green to ever live up to his ranking as one of the pretournament favourites for The Masters.
“I scored much better than I played in the first round and then played much better than I scored today,” he shrugged. Harrington (38) smiled when it was suggested time might be ebbing away for him at the Majors.
“I’m still only approaching my best,” insisted the Dubliner, whose prospects of making the weekend took a real body blow when he double-bogeyed 10 yesterday after turning in two-over.
After blocking his tee shot into the trees on this daunting dogleg, Harrington hit his ball into even deeper trouble 30 yards short of the green and had to take a penalty drop.
After pitching to the back of the green, he needed two putts to get down.
Incredibly, given his five month’s absence from golf, Tiger’s game was rock-steady once again yesterday and the two-under par 70, which lifted him to six-under and within striking distance of his fifth Green Jacket, was described by Harrington as “a fine score.
“The way the pins are hidden today, that’s a very impressive round,” added the Dubliner. “Yet Tiger’s performance this week doesn’t surprise me. I always felt he’d be competitive when he came back. Just getting out on the golf course in competitive was always going to give him a lift.”
Woods has been wearing dark glasses on the course at a Major for the first time this week to help alleviate his pollen allergy but in every other way, he’s looked like the Tiger of old at Augusta.
For all that, Poulter, at eight-under after back-to-back rounds of 68, is a formidable enough putter to sustain this weekend his hopes of fulfilling his childhood dreams by winning the Masters…the only blot on the Englishman’s card yesterday was a bogey at the last after he pulled his approach to 18 into the spectators enclosure on the right.
How different Poulter’s mood was to that of McIlroy as the youngster peered out from the personal gloom of his first missed cut at the Major Championships and pined for the day when playing golf seemed a heck of a lot simpler.
Since the first weekend of February, when his defence of the Dubai Desert Classic was undermined by the recurrence of a deep-seated back problem, McIlroy has been unable to recover the form which sent him rocketing into the world top-10 last year.
The injury is no longer his most pressing problem, McIlroy insists. Instead, he needs to clear his head and is considering a complete break from the game of up to six weeks and next month’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth to try and refresh himself.
Effectively, he needs to rediscover his enthusiasm for the game. “I don’t know what’s going on,” McIlroy admitted after a second round 77 sent him tumbling to seven-over and out of the Masters.
It’s the first time he’s missed the cut at back-to-back events since the summer of 2008 and the Holywood youngster went on: “I just need to take a bit of a break and get away from it for a while, then come back with a refreshed attitude.
“I don’t think my attitude on the course is very good at the minute. I’m getting frustrated very easily and getting down on myself. I think I just need to go home for a few weeks and get my head sorted.
“I’m supposed to play Quail Hollow in a couple of weeks, but we’ll see how it goes. I might take a bit more time off to get my head showered and let this back injury clear up fully and maybe come back for Wentworth.
“It feels okay at the minute,” said McIlroy of his back. “But it might clear up fully if I rest it completely. I know it’s not a long-term thing and, in time, will be fine. Instead, I need to be able to go back out on the course and enjoy myself again,” he added.
If he doesn’t return before Wentworth, McIlroy will, of course, miss the showpiece Players Championship at Sawgrass and put further pressure on himself later in the season to retain the US PGA Tour card he took out for the first time in January.
“I’m not really concerned about that at the minute. Instead, I just want to get my game back in shape and when I do, the card will take care of itself,” he went on.
Asked if he felt his stellar achievements since turning profession in a blaze of glory in October 2007 had put him under excessive pressure to perform, McIlroy said: “I suppose I’ve put a bit of expectation on myself.
“Sometimes I think I just need to go back to playing like I did when I was a kid. Just whack it and go and whack it again. You get out here your head can get cluttered up with a few things,” he reflected ruefully.
Though he missed the cut in Houston, McIlroy believed the hard work he did on his swing with coach Michael Bannon last weekend, would put him in good stead for Augusta.
Coupled with the adrenaline boost he expected to get from playing the Masters, he went into the event with his hopes high of being able to recapture the form which helped him become one of just 12 players to make the cut at all four Majors last year.
Yet Augusta National is the last place to come looking for something in your game. Needing to start briskly after Thursday’s first round 74, he instead found it difficult to get his ball close enough to yesterday’s punishing pins to make any birdies.
He ran into a metaphorical brick wall with a double-bogey six at seven. The trouble started when he leaked his drive into trees on the right. He played a nice, low shot out of the pine needles and deserved better than the impossible shot he was left-with off the downslope at the rear of the back greenside bunker. Yet Augusta’s not meant to be fair. Almost inevitably, McIlroy’s escape scooted through the green into a front trap. He splashed out to three feet and missed the putt. There you probably have McIlroy’s 2010 Masters campaign summed-up neatly in one hole, though he’d insist: “I didn’t mind the double-bogey at seven as much as the bogey six at eight. After that, I really had to push and push and push to try and make the cut.”
US Masters, Live, Setanta Ireland and BBC2, 8.30