Tuesday 20 February 2018

Rory needs miracle as runaway Spieth races into history

Texan gunslinger leaves  McIlroy 12 behind with record-shattering rounds of 64 and 66

Rory McIlroy shows his frustration during a difficult first nine at Augusta yesterday that left him trailing Jordan Spieth. Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy shows his frustration during a difficult first nine at Augusta yesterday that left him trailing Jordan Spieth. Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images

Karl MacGinty

Rory McIlroy picked the wrong week to play conservatively at Augusta National, it seemed, as Texas star Jordan Spieth blasted himself ever higher into the golfing firmament with his greatest opening 36 holes in Masters history.

Spieth brilliantly endorsed his credentials as Masters champion-elect by following up Thursday’s superlative 64 with an imperious 66 yesterday to purr into a commanding five-shot lead on 14-under par.

This beat by one the record low score for two rounds at Augusta set by Ray Floyd as he romped to an eight-stroke victory over Ben Crenshaw in the 1976 Masters.

Crenshaw, who missed the cut in his 44th and final Masters with an 85, best summed up the awesome mental strength of his young fellow Texan as he recalled meeting Spieth for the first time. “It was like staring into the eye of Wyatt Earp,” said the two-times Masters champion.

McIlroy, favoured by many to etch his name in history this weekend as only the sixth golfer to complete a career Grand Slam, went into the weekend a dozen shots behind Spieth on two-under after a second-round 71 in which the off-colour World No 1 failed to fully exploit the uncommonly receptive greens at Augusta National.

The 25-year-old Holywood native may need a couple of 66s or better to overhaul Spieth.

Yet McIlroy will have to hope that during an impressive five-under-par rally on the back nine yesterday he managed to shake off the doubts which clearly inhibited him this week as he stood on the cusp of victory and play, without fear, the golf of which he’s capable.

“I just couldn’t get going on the front nine. . . it just wasn’t good enough. At least I salvaged something on the back and it was nice to birdie the final two holes,” he said.

As for his prospects of catching Spieth, McIlroy shrugged: “There’s always a possibility but Jordan looks like he’s not going to let up. He led here last year and is a more rounded player than I was when I was in that position in 2011.”

After turning in 40 yesterday, McIlroy cast off the peculiar lethargy which had gripped him to make his first birdie in 24 attempts on his nemesis, the 10th hole, followed by a glorious eagle three at 13, a lovely chip-in birdie at 17 and another three at the last.

McIlroy’s putting yesterday inspires little confidence, though. He had four putts from just off the back of the green, including a miss from inside four feet, on his way to the double-bogey six at nine that left him wallowing outside the cut-mark on three-over.

The pressure of trying to chase Spieth’s runaway lead clearly had taken its toll on that outward half.

Even as he sallied down the stretch, McIlroy made an ugly three-putt bogey at 14, missing once again from three feet. In stark contrast, Spieth, appeared almost infallible on Augusta’s greens.

Spieth is unlikely to fold easily, as suggested by his pillar-to-post victory at Tiger’s Hero World Challenge last December. Clearly, this guy is capable of maintaining a lead through four rounds, albeit in a limited field event.

With respect to California’s Charley Hoffman (38), the closest challenger on nine-under, Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose, tied third on seven-under with Paul Casey, offer the most potent threat – especially Johnson, who had a Masters record three eagle threes in his 67 yesterday and played the four par-fives in a record seven-under.

How McIlroy must wish he could take advantage of his prodigious length so effectively!


Spieth, currently three behind World No 1 McIlroy in the rankings, confirmed his status as the biggest threat to the Ulsterman’s primacy in world golf with his mastery of Augusta National at its most vulnerable.

That he knew his way around this place was clear last year as Spieth finished in a tie for second behind Bubba Watson on his Masters debut last year. He led through 54 holes before Watson took his second Green Jacket in three years with an irresistible Saturday surge.

“It’s tough to sleep on a lead here and I saw that last year. But I’m now a lot more confident in the way that I can handle certain situations,” he said.

Even if he has won three times and finished second twice, losing out in sudden death last Sunday at the Shell Houston Open, in his last 11 outings, few could have imagined the explosive impact Spieth would have on the season’s first Major.

Just when McIlroy might be temped to look over his shoulder at Spieth and the posse of younger players challenging him, another Major threat once again looms from the other side of the age divide in the shape of Tiger Woods.

The four-times Masters champion (39) erased question marks over his game as he followed Thursday’s ring-rusty one-over par 73 with a polished 69. In just his second round after nine weeks of self-imposed exile, Tiger is ready to go roaring around Amen Corner once again.

Spieth undoubtedly was ‘The Man’ over two days at Augusta. If he relied on a few fortunate breaks on Thursday, yesterday’s round was Rolls-Royce pure and as close to perfection as one might hope.

He birdied all four par-fives, laying up in every case, and once again heavily underscored his credentials as an infallible putter by rolling home two 18-footers for birdie at the fifth and 10th holes. Pointedly, he has taken just 50 putts in two rounds.

Spieth’s steady disposition once again was underlined as he addressed the historical significance of yesterday’s round.

“I was just excited to be off to a great start, having a chance to control my open destiny in this golf tournament,” he said. “As far as history and what happened the last couple days is concerned, it doesn’t mean anything, unless I can close it out.

“I don’t want to go in as the 36-hole best record, but somebody who didn’t win. So, ultimately, I just need to set a goal for myself, continue to strike the ball the way we have been playing and try and shoot under par rounds on this weekend.”

Did he find it as easy as it looked?

“Not necessarily, because you just have to think so much about how to be below the hole, what spots you’re going to hit it in,” he said. “But I’ve been making a good amount of short to mid-range putts and that’s certainly been the key so far. I’m just going to have to have patience.”

Ernie Els paid Spieth the ultimate compliment when he said his performance over the first 36 holes reminded him of the US Open at Pebble Beach 15 years ago, when the South African was faced with the forlorn task of trying to hunt down Tiger as he raced to the greatest Major victory in history.

Graeme McDowell had six birdies and four bogeys in a 74 to lie safely within the cut mark at one-over. “I continued to drive it like a wally,” said the Portrush man. “I’m not sure what’s going on with the driver. It’s one of my strengths normally.”

McDowell, playing at the weekend for only the third time in seven visits to the Majors, added “Jordan put in a similar performance to this at Tiger’s event in Isleworth last year.

“On a tough course he kept accelerating away from the field. He seems to have that extra gear.”

Darren Clarke also eased through on one-over after an assured 71.

US Masters, live, Sky Sports 4, 7.00pm

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