Monday 26 June 2017

Rory McIlroy targeting fast start at Augusta and history strongly suggests he should

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland tees off on the 15th hole during Wednesday practice rounds for the 2017 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland tees off on the 15th hole during Wednesday practice rounds for the 2017 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta

Phil Casey

They say the Masters does not start until the back nine on Sunday, an adage borne out by Jordan Spieth's dramatic collapse and Danny Willett's subsequent triumph last year.

But it would be equally valid to state that a fast start is as vital as a strong finish for the likes of Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson if they want to slip on a coveted green jacket for the first time at Augusta National.

For the past 11 years, the eventual Masters champion has been inside the top 10 after the first round, with Tiger Woods the last player to come from well off the pace.

Woods, who is absent for the third time in four years due to ongoing back problems, was tied 33rd after an opening 74 in 2005 before surging though the field with scores of 66 and 65 and eventually beating Chris DiMarco in a play-off.

Willett was tied ninth 12 months ago and Spieth led from start to finish in 2015, details which have certainly not escaped the attention of McIlroy as he chases the win required to complete a career grand slam.

McIlroy's best opening round in eight appearances was the 65 in 2011 which seemed to have set him up for a memorable victory, only for his four-shot lead to disappear with a closing 80.

Since then, the 27-year-old has failed to break 70 on the opening day and his best finish of fourth in 2015 was thanks to closing rounds of 68 and 66, which still left him six adrift of runaway winner Spieth.

"I think it's always important to get off to a decent start in tournaments, but I think especially here you don't want to feel like you're playing catch-up on this golf course," said McIlroy, who is aiming to join Jack Nicklaus, Woods, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Gary Player in having claimed all four major titles.

"You feel like the more you force the issue, the more things can go wrong. You start to shoot at a few pins and you short-side yourself, leave yourself in spots that you don't really want to. Then you can run up numbers pretty quickly.

"You don't need to come out and shoot 65 on the first day, but at the same time you're better off shooting something under par just to get yourself off to a nice start."

To that end, McIlroy has taken on board advice from six-time Masters champion Nicklaus, who told him on Monday he had missed out on more green jackets by being too aggressive.

Since 2010, McIlroy has had more double bogeys or worse at Augusta than any other player under 50, a key factor in shooting a round of 77 or higher in six of his last seven starts.

"It's just a matter of being smart, taking your medicine when you have to and moving on," McIlroy added.

McIlroy has at least enjoyed more than 100 holes of practice and, in his words, a "relatively quiet build-up" as attention has been focused on the struggles of defending champion Willett, Spieth's response to his collapse and the three straight wins of world number one Dustin Johnson.

"It's a great place to be and we have some great memories around here," said Willett, who carded a flawless closing 67 to take advantage of Spieth's meltdown. "It's nice to be back and we've had a few days of good work.

"It's now about trying to get the game to where I can get back in position and hopefully do it again."

Spieth has made it clear he is sick of questions about last year and his quadruple-bogey seven on the 12th in particular, which he followed with birdies on the 13th and 15th before a bogey on the 17th ended his chances.

"I'm proud of my entire round," said the 23-year-old, who has finished second, first and second in his three Masters appearances. "I was proud of the way we fought that day too.

"I hope to have the opportunities that I had the last three years and that's what I'm going for. This place has an interesting and incredible history in my life and I feel like I handle situations better out here than other places. I just feel kind of a calmness."

Calmness is unfortunately not in the weather forecast, with winds of around 30mph predicted for the first two days which could favour the big hitters such as McIlroy, Johnson and Spain's Jon Rahm.

Rahm is a contender to become the first Masters rookie to win a green jacket since 1979, when Fuzzy Zoeller defeated Tom Watson and Ed Sneed in a play-off.

Incidentally, Zoeller had been tied for the lead after day one.

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