Sport Golf

Saturday 17 March 2018

McIlroy like a lost boy again at Masters in Augusta

Rory McIlroy consults with his caddie before hitting from the azaleas on the 13th hole during the second round of the Masters at Augusta.
Rory McIlroy consults with his caddie before hitting from the azaleas on the 13th hole during the second round of the Masters at Augusta.
Rory McIlroy climbs into azaleas to find his ball on the 13th hole as a rules official looks on during the second round of the Masters at Augusta.
Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy hits from the azaleas on the 13th hole during the second round of the Masters at Augusta.

Flailing around in another rarely visited corner of Augusta’s luxuriant flora, Rory McIlroy must have felt strangely at home.

Where in 2011 he left it until the 10th hole of his final round to perform his little-boy-lost act by the Butler cabin, this time his exotic off-road excursion came as early as the fourth on Friday, as he hopelessly overclubbed at the par-three fourth, landing his ball in the heart of a bush and almost braining defending Masters champion Adam Scott on the adjacent tee.

If Bill Bryson ever plans a sequel to A Walk in the Woods, his yomp through the forests of Appalachia, he might like to enlist our intrepid orienteer from Northern Ireland to write it for him.

For no golfer of the Ulsterman’s eminence can claim quite such intimate acquaintance with the Georgia verdure as McIlroy, who also, in the course of his chaotic second-round 77, found himself up to his neck in the azaleas at the back of the par-five 13th.

Shades of his unravelling three years ago were stark, as McIlroy watched his Masters prospects evaporate again around Amen Corner.

The solitary consolation was that he made the cut, sinking a slippery six-footer at the 18th just to ensure he was not on the first private jet out of Richmond County.

Much has been made of the 24-year-old’s jaunty demeanour this week, of his joshing with the crowd during the par-three contest and his decision to dye fiancée Caroline Wozniacki’s hair a fetching shade of magenta, but he wore a more sombre mien as he dragged his feet through the back nine, his chances shot to pieces once more.

Granted, for him and his fellow afternoon starters there had been little hope of making hay while the sun shone, as a capricious wind made for glassy greens and devilishly difficult, crusty fairways. But McIlroy shouldered just as much of the blame for his cement-headed decision-making.

Just what he had been thinking at the fourth, where he suffered such a rush of blood that he found an unplayable lie in a hedge? This was but a gentle lapse, though, compared to his antics on the 13th, where he hit his approach – a shot that he claimed only on Thursday that he had hit “500 times” – wretchedly left, only to watch the ball cannon off a sprinkler head and deep into the flowers.

It was a nightmare of an afternoon for McIlroy, who, while executing a sumptuous drive on the 10th, his personal bête noire, proceeded to walk off with a double-bogey after sending his second shot long into the pine needles.

The logic that McIlroy is at his best when he plays at his freest was rapidly coming apart at the seams. Indeed, his miserable waft at a birdie putt on the 12th suggested almost an absent-mindedness, reminiscent of his daze in 2011 when he knew all ideas of victory were sunk.

The worry is that this kind of abject implosion is starting to become a habit where Rory and the Masters are concerned.

If we are prepared to excuse his brain-fade while leading the tournament on Sunday, when it was all he could do to stop bursting into tears, we notice nonetheless that these aberrant rounds increasingly are a feature: a closing 80 in 2011, weekend rounds of 77 and 76 in 2012, and a Saturday 79 last year.

This 77 at least spared McIlroy the indignity of joining Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els among the luminous names to take their leave prematurely.

Indeed, not a single Masters champion between 2004 and 2010 will be here this weekend. It is not statistically out of the question that McIlroy could engineer an 11-shot swing – after all, Nick Faldo managed it on a Sunday in 1996 – but it is utterly improbable when trailing a talent of the flair and imagination of Bubba Watson. His Augusta coronation is in abeyance.

But such were his errors on Friday, it is no wonder that Tiger Woods's heir presumptive is yet even to break into the top 10 on this stage.

Speaking of Woods, it was impossible not to feel on Friday that the tapestry of the drama – despite Watson’s exhilarating burst of birdies and another fine 71 for the ageless Fred Couples – was rent with a giant Tiger-shaped hole.

Jordan Spieth was just nine months old when Woods last missed a Masters, in 1994, and yet this weekend the man who for two decades has lavished Augusta with golf from a different planet finds himself cooped up at home in Jupiter, Florida.

The void is palpable. For the recent history of this tournament is, inescapably, a chronicle of all things Woods. He might not have won since his fourth green jacket in 2005, but the sport’s crocked superstar remains as conspicuous by his absence as the late, lamented Eisenhower Tree.

The sounds that accompanied his Augusta flourishes – “Oh, wow, in your life have you seen anything like that?” as Verne Lundquist of CBS described his spectacular chip-in at the 16th nine years ago – still whisper through the pines.

The Masters field is denuded by the loss of its most captivating character, a consequence not only of his achievements but also of his polarising effect. Woods’ petulance, grumpiness, club-throwing and, of course, the revelations of his rampant philandering are all anathema to the gentlemen of Augusta, who tend to draw their puritanical notions of morality from the age of Edgar Allan Poe.

Woods, in his Georgia casting, is the rogue you cannot take your eyes off.

Those who are forced to fill the breach, by contrast, offer no such undercurrents of malevolence. McIlroy, in particular, is too gentle of manner and, on Friday night’s evidence, too mentally fragile to call himself Woods’ successor just yet. Suddenly, this Masters is a pantomime without a villain.

Oliver Brown

Window for Rory McIlroy as he just makes Masters cut Bubba Watson gives free rein to his outrageous genius

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