McIlroy explodes from traps
Irish ace shoots into lead as Harrington cursed be neck injury
Rory McIlroy produced a Masterful performance at Augusta National yesterday, reminiscent of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods at their finest, as he eased himself into the clubhouse lead with a phenomenal bogey-free 65.
As Tiger struggles manfully to rebuild his swing and restore his shattered reputation, McIlroy (21) lit up the most fabled arena in golf with a display of youthful exuberance not seen at the Masters since 1997, when Woods, then also 21, made his own Major Championship breakthrough.
Poised to become the youngest first-round leader in Masters history, McIlroy once again showed class, self-assurance and polish well beyond his years. So it was charming to hear him tell afterwards of the late-night football game on the road outside his lodgings in Augusta that left him in hot water with the neighbours.
Refreshed after three weeks away from the professional tournament circuit and relaxed in the company of a few close friends from home, McIlroy and the lads went outside their Augusta lodgings on Wednesday night to throw an American football around.
Yet the woman across the street took grave exception to the noise, telling them off in no uncertain terms, so McIlroy and his mates sheepishly went back indoors. There was nothing sheepish, however, about McIlroy's round, which left the youngster two strokes ahead of YE Yang in the clubhouse.
McIlroy described his day's work yesterday as "solid" and "very satisfying". Clearly he has learned from painful experience at The Open last July, when he equalled the lowest round at the Majors with a 63 on Thursday and followed up with a storm-tossed 80 on Friday.
"It maybe wasn't as explosive or spectacular as the 63 at St Andrews but today was more solid from start to finish," he said. "What happened at The Open last year will be a massive help to me and I'll keep it in mind tomorrow. Looking back, it was a very valuable lesson."
If Augusta National was McIlroy's playground yesterday, it was agony for Padraig Harrington as he battled manfully with a neck injury sustained as he swung his club left-handed in his early-morning warm-up on the range.
"I very nearly pulled out before I started," Harrington confessed after signing for a 77, his equal-worst round at Augusta. "I was just warming up and it kind of clicked and since then I've not been able to move to my right.
"I was advised to pull out but I wouldn't. That's my nature, I'll always have a go, especially when it's the Masters. Yet it wasn't much fun. I'd been very happy with my preparations, so it's disappointing not to get a chance."
Harrington has been bothered on-and-off by a bulging disc in his neck since the 2002 US PGA at Hazeltine but he's determined to try and play on at Augusta today. The first round wasn't much fun for US Open champion Graeme McDowell either, as he struggled to find his finishing touch during a first-round 74 which included three three-putts on the back nine.
Meanwhile, McDowell's playing companion, Woods, recovered after some distinctly wayward shooting to post a one-under-par 71. Tiger's golf was untidy, while McIlroy's was close to perfection. Woods enthused: "Rory's got a lot of talent. As we all know, he's got a wonderful golf swing and it's just a matter of time before he starts winning a bunch of tournaments."
McIlroy revelled in the company of two other youngsters yesterday, Rickie Fowler (22) and Aussie Jason Day (23) -- both Masters debutants. In contrast, McIlroy is competing at Augusta for the third time -- he made the top-20 on his debut in 2009 and missed the cut last year.
Third at St Andrews last summer after a fighting weekend finish and third once again in the US PGA at Whistling Straits, it's clear the steep learning curve McIlroy has been riding at the Majors will carry him to victory sooner rather than later.
Pointing to the two victories McIlroy has to show from 43 months as a professional, some suggest his short game's not yet good enough for him to win The Masters, most recently Butch Harmon, coach to Phil Mickelson, who had to eat humble pie in the Sky TV studio at Augusta National last night.
For sure, McIlroy has had a tendency to miss the occasional short putt in telling situations and, if you want to be picky, he let a couple of birdie chances go abegging on the par-five eighth, the par-five 13th and the tricky short 16th.
Yet McIlroy played so well yesterday that a course record 63 to equal the one posted by Greg Norman in the first round in 1996 and in the third round by Nick Price 10 years earlier certainly would not have flattered him.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with McIlroy's short game or his putting stroke when all is going as smoothly as it did that famous weekend at Quail Hollow last June or yesterday.
No, the only fault discernible in McIlroy's make-up is a tendency for his shoulders to slump and confidence to drain away a little too quickly under adversity, perhaps the only concession the youngster makes to his tender years and inexperience.
Eventually, McIlroy will learn to grind, though it was difficult to imagine him ever needing to do so as he walked the most famous fairways in golf with the sort of swagger one usually associates with the game's true Masters.
Not that he had it all his own way. McIlroy's opening tee shot landed in the right fairway bunker at the first, a sand trap so deep, the top of his black baseball cap could barely be seen over its lip.
McIlroy had little option but to lay-up short of the green with his escape and then chipped and putted deftly for his par. What was that about his short game, Butch?
Earlier this week, he'd spoken of the importance of building a good foundation on Augusta National's front nine and McIlroy certainly delivered on that count yesterday as he passed through the turn in a faultless four-under-par 32.
McIlroy argues that the most important thing he learned in his first two US Masters in where to miss at Augusta and he underscored that point when he played two fine shots just short of the green at the par-five second, leaving himself a relatively straightforward chip and putt for birdie.
Two more birdies followed at the short par-four third, where he pitched and putted with ease from 60 yards, and the daunting 238-yard par-three fourth, courtesy of a lovely four-iron tee shot and a deft 18-foot putt. Another birdie at nine was followed by a real cracker at 11, holing out after hitting his five-iron to seven feet, though he'd confess his heart had been in his mouth as the shot veered further left than intended.
He reduced 14 to a driver and wedge to four feet and needed just a driver and six-iron to set himself up for a two-putt birdie at the 530-yard 15th. "And that was it," said the youngster with a smile. "Sounds simple but it wasn't."