AUGUSTA, Ga. – If morning on opening day at the 78th Masters belonged to legends who own multiple green jackets, then the afternoon session was about those rising stars of today who are chasing after them. It’s not often that Rory McIlroy, all of 24 years old, is the resident graybeard in his threesome, but that was the case on Thursday when he paired with Masters rookies Patrick Reed (23) and Jordan Spieth, who in July finally will be old enough to legally enjoy a beer.
It seemed at times all three experienced their share of adversity and hardship, and the golf course can be credited – or blamed, depending on one’s perspective – for that. For all her beauty, there are days when Augusta National can be a true Six Flags thrill ride, and Thursday was one where players simply grabbed the safety bar and held on for dear life.
Many hole locations were difficult to access, and when the winds began to swirl, well, this exam got turned up a notch.
So when Spieth decided to buck his better judgment as a first-timer and finally glance up at a leaderboard, it was a pleasant surprise to see everyone in his group on it.
“It was a tough setup,” McIlroy said. “I think that they (tournament officials) really wanted to do that, they didn’t want the scores to get too low. You can see by the boards nobody is going too low.”
McIlroy and Spieth got to the clubhouse in red numbers at 1-under 71, only three shots behind leader Bill Haas, and both were fine with that. Reed, who played his college golf in Augusta, struggled at the finish, making bogeys on his final three holes to stumble in at 73. This was a day when patience not only was a virtue, but a must, and the youngsters, for the most part, exhibited it in admirable doses.
Spieth faced a tenuous situation as the short-but-daunting 12th, where he’d overcooked a punched 8-iron into in an ill-advised locale and found the back bunker. He thought about pulling off the “hero” shot, but with water in play, instead took the advice of his caddie, Michael Greller, and blasted a shot away from the hole, his ball finishing 18 feet away. When Spieth drained the putt, he kept his momentum going in the right direction.
“You have to dial it down here, no doubt about it,” Spieth said. “You can’t be aggressive.”
He noted instances in the round where McIlroy knew to hit to certain spots that he and Reed did not, such as at the par-4 17th, where McIlroy had wedge in his hand but played safely left of the far-right hole location. Reed made bogey when his approach bounded over the green.
“We’re still learning it,” Spieth said of Augusta National, “but in the process of learning, if you can shoot under par, then you’re in good shape.”
McIlroy hit 15 greens in regulation, though he struggled with his speed on the greens and needed 34 putts. His three bogeys on the day (8, 12, 18) came on holes that he three-putted.
But generally, he was pleased with how he handled a pretty rugged day.
“Anything under par today,” McIlroy said, “was a good score.”
Hard to believe that this is McIlroy’s sixth dance with The National. He never has finished better than a tie for 15th, but with Tiger Woods on the mend, he’s on the grounds as the prohibitive favorite. Asked recently if he could see himself never landing a green jacket, he said he could not, “because it’s one of the top four prizes in the game, and that’s what I want to win.”
One might think McIlroy has a lot of scar tissue built up here. He seemed in total control heading to the back nine on Sunday three years ago, only to hook a ball into the cabins at 10 and unravel before our eyes, staggering to a final-round 80. There’s nothing quite like getting undressed as the entire world watches. On the phone the next morning with his mom, Rosey, he broke down and cried.
But he would not trade the lessons he learned for anything.
When McIlroy turns his courtesy car down Magnolia Drive each April, his emotions aren’t stirred by trepidation and bad memories, but sheer excitement. He loves the place. He knows he has the length and power and the right shot shape (right to left) to be a huge factor here for years to come. If he’s shown us anything in his brief career, it’s that he always seems to rebound. Two months after that Masters Sunday collapse, he romped to his first major title, lapping the field at the U.S. Open at Congressional.
The weather the next three days in Augusta calls for sunshine and warming temps, which means the Lords of the Greenjackets can dial up the difficulty at ANGC as high as they’d like. The greens could get downright crunchy, and it may be the firmest, and fastest, Masters we’ve seen in years. Success will come to those who play smartly and can stay patient.
“I think it brings the guys that don’t hit it as far into the mix a little bit more,” McIlroy said, “because it’s not just about power then, it’s about precision, it’s about putting your ball in the right place and it becomes more of a mental challenge than anything else, just playing to your spots. It almost becomes like chess, where you’re just making these moves.
“That hasn’t been my forte in the past, but I’ll learn to love it this week.”
He’d better. The 78th Masters could be a grind.