Vincent Hogan: Maturing Rory ready to strike in Masters cauldron
He came to the shade of the great oak with the zestful, swinging stride of a man hurrying to a different place.
Maybe it was a trick of the light, but you sensed a certain worry fall from Rory McIlroy's shoulders last night. A second round of 71 did precisely what it needed to do on a day Augusta National made many of golf's biggest men feel small. The morning dawned picture-book perfect; gentle breezes, a cornflower blue apron high above.
But there are no humdrum days in paradise.
"Nice position to be in going into the weekend," he told us, having been ushered to the media auditorium. "The conditions today were a little bit tougher, the breeze was up, the pin positions were trickier.
"I feel I could have shot another round in the 60s. I had two good chances of birdie on 17 and 18 that I didn't convert, but 71 is a good score.
"Now I just need to stay patient, birdie the par fives, keep my putts on the high side of the hole and hope for the best."
The day became an assault of the nerves of some of golf's coolest citizens, a reminder how you can go from cocktails in the Ritz to cheap plonk on a park bench in an instant here.
And McIlroy's Thursday smile had told a multitude. He found himself precisely where he needed to be. Not centre-stage, but close enough to see the white's of the leader's eyes.
And any time previously he'd been top five after the opening round of a Major before? He'd won the tournament.
So maybe that smile wasn't a sigh of relief, but a premonition. Had he been aware of that statistic?
"I think once you get yourself up there and you're playing well enough after day one, if you continue that good play you should be up there for the rest of the tournament," he said.
"You know I've always felt comfortable up around the lead. You know it's a place, thankfully, that I'm quite familiar with and know how to deal with."
The consensus that he's a suspect scrambler had been challenged by those three closing pars, all mined from positions that could have been ruinous. And Augusta demands that kind of resilience, the capacity to rescue a round as much as construct one. You expect it to be cruel, to aim a sneaky blow and try to knock your teeth out if you blink.
Its lush and rolling treachery thieves the breath of those who've only seen it with the aid of a satellite dish. It leaves great golfers staring blankly at their cards, collating the pain like cuckolded husbands whose wives have emptied the safe.
Take hole six. McIlroy reached it just after mid-day yesterday, his round already a reflection of so many heartbeats turning rogue. The hole, a 180-yard par three, across which people are allowed sit in the dip beneath the tee, is rated a lowly 13th in terms of difficulty for Augusta's eighteen.
It's the pin position that decides its daily personality.
Yesterday's was just on the edge of a malevolent ridge, over which Rickie Fowler - playing in the group ahead - watched what looked a sublime recovery disappear back down to the front of the green as if on a water-slide. Miraculously, Fowler made his par with an audacious 35-footer, but the warning was there for those on the tee.
Anything short would spin back to meet them.
Rory did what's in his DNA, firing at the flag but slightly over-cooking things. He then fluffed his pitch back, leaving a putt of maybe seventeen feet to the edge of an open lift shaft. It was a putt he couldn't afford to commit to, thus costing him his third bogey of an already torrid morning.
Directly behind, Jordan Spieth looked in need of smelling salts, his lead already lost in two holes to the crushing banality of a tightening swing.
That was the tenor of this Georgia morning, the sense of heartbeats in a frenzy. Augusta's front nine had begun pitching golf's biggest names into a tumble-dryer, most of them going about their business with all the composure of starlings.
Rory promptly pulled his drive on seven into pine needles down the left and, marching towards it, remained purposefully deaf to cries of 'Go Rory!' until one tip-toed to him on the voice of a child. Then just the gentlest smile and thumbs-up to a boy of maybe eight, sitting behind the rope.
He parred the next six, submitting to a kind of dry-mouthed struggle with so much around him degenerating into a demolition derby.
Phil Mickelson, for example, triple-bogeyed nine after a luridly hooked drive, everyone hearing jackals in the pines. This, palpably, was a day for holding ground, not making it.
McIlroy's first birdie in 10 holes came on the par five thirteenth, safely two-putting from the back of the green. And that set him on a roll, another coming on fourteen where he swung one in from twenty feet.
That brought him to four under and right in the mix again with late starters, Patrick Reed and Marc Leishman, both flying out of the blocks, birdie, birdie, birdie.
On a day the course seemed to play to the mischief of its ghosts, McIlroy simply needed to stay relevant. That he duly achieved, despite over-clubbing his approach to fifteen and watching his approach to sixteen loop away from the flag.
In fact, four closing pars re-affirmed that Thursday sense of a man at peace with the thumb-prints this place leaves on your Adam's Apple. For, yet again, McIlroy stayed calm and sensible.
He explained: "After six, I just said to Harry 'Let's just try to hit fairways and greens here. If we do that, we're going to be OK'.
"Then I said to myself on the thirteenth tee, 'Let's make four (birdies) in the next six, sort of do what Jordan did yesterday, but I didn't quite manage it.
"Anything under par today was pretty good. I never have expectations of where I'm going to be on the leaderboard. I just want to go out there and play well.
"I'm in a good position, but I think I'm just happier with how I've felt, how I've handled certain things and how my thought processes have been.
"That's been a pleasing thing. Every experience you have in this arena, you learn a little bit from it each time. For me, I know I don't have to go out and make a birdie on every hole, especially not on this golf course, in these conditions.
"Sometimes pars might be a little bit boring, you might feel you want to get a little bit more out of your round, but you look up at the leaderboard and you're still there around the lead.
"That's taken me a while to adjust to. I think when I first came out here on this Tour, I thought all these guys birdied every hole and that I'd have to hit unbelievable shot after unbelievable shot.
"It's not quite like that. Golf is a game of making your misses not that bad and taking advantage of your good shots."
The suspicion lingers that, if he won a Masters, he could make this place his playground.
But that's the galling thing about pressure. It turns golfers into lost souls and golf writers into satirists, transporting that mammoth word 'if' into a punchline.
McIlroy knows that. He understands what matters and what doesn't here.
Recently, he declared: "I don't care about the world rankings, I think about number of wins, the ability of the players against me, the number of Majors the others have.
"I don't feel I need to compare myself to anyone else, because I know what I can do."
Trouble is, in his own words, he was on "Tiger's pace" between 2011 and '14, winning four Majors.
He'd bounced out of this place a man in a hurry after that back nine meltdown, claiming his first Major within weeks almost in rebuke it seemed of those tempted towards sympathy.
And, suddenly, he was the next new shooting star. The natural successor to Tiger. The kid who might even find it in him to chase down old Jack Nicklaus.
Three more Majors later, Rory's story is now complicated by our impatience. He almost needs that career Grand Slam as much for our fulfilment as his own. And there's only one place, one week that it's on offer.
With all manner of groans and cheers whistling across the hills yesterday, Bob Rotella's line that Augusta is "there to be had if you can let yourself have it" never seemed more apt.
And, just now, McIlroy looks as if he believes it.