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McIlroy and Mickelson light up back nine at the Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. — For those who believe in the adage that the Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday, Rory McIlroy proved otherwise.

To cling to the slimmest of hopes for his first green jacket and a career Grand Slam, the 2015 Masters began on the back nine Friday. Not that he was brimming with optimism, even after coming home in 31 just before daylight shut things down at Augusta National Golf Club. Yes, the World No. 1 went from 3 over and outside the cut at the turn, to comfortably inside with four birdies and an eagle on the back, but sitting a whopping 12 strokes behind Jordan Spieth, McIlroy didn’t sound like a guy who was asking for a date with the tailor.

“It’s an incredible performance,” McIlroy said of Spieth’s 14-under score at the halfway point. “I definitely didn’t see it.”

And sitting in a tie for 19th at 2-under 142, McIlroy (71-71) didn’t seem to be envisioning a historic rally, at least not by him. “A few guys can still catch him. You never know.”

McIlroy might have been including his playing competitor, three-time champion Phil Mickelson, in that mix. Unlike McIlroy, Mickelson had the proper color headed to the back nine, 2 under, and used a strong 32 to shoot 68. He pushed to 6-under 138, solo sixth, but Mickelson remained subdued — and for good reason.

Though he posted five birdies against a lone bogey, at the par-3 fourth, Mickelson lost ground. That’s right, he lost ground; six back when he left Augusta National on Thursday night, he slipped into a falling darkness eight off of Spieth’s lead.

“If we’re able to go low, so is he,” Mickelson said when asked about the chances of making a rally, if conditions remain softer than tournament officials would prefer.

But if somehow overnight rains don’t arrive and things dry out a little and, firmer and tougher conditions arrive for Saturday’s Round 3? Mickelson shrugged. It’s a thought that appealed to him, but sadly, he seemed resigned to the stage that has been presented to competitors this year.

“There’s no fire in the golf course right now,” Mickelson said, explaining how angles into the greens and the delicate chips and pitches around the putting surfaces are so much more difficult when things aren’t so soft. “We need a little fire in the golf course.”

As for what was done on the back nine by players in his group — Mickelson shot 32, McIlroy 31, Ryan Moore 33 — Lefty wasn’t overly impressed. He’s here for the 23rd time and knows everything about the stage; it’s still beautiful, still the place he wants to be, but it’s not playing its usual brand of defense. Mickelson assumed many players peppered the back nine and, indeed, he was right. Spieth had 33, Charley Hoffman 34, Justin Rose 33, Dustin Johnson 34, Paul Casey 34.

Throw in the fact that Spieth “was playing some of the best golf coming in here, and he’s playing the best golf in this tournament,” according to Mickelson, and it’s a tall order.

Then again, it would have been even taller had Mickelson not pulled off a vintage Mickelson shot at the par-4 17th. Having driven his ball into left rough, Mickelson was blocked out by a large Georgia pine. That’s the bad news. The good? “The wind was helping,” he said, so even though he had 142 yards to the hole, Mickelson was able to rip his wedge and hoist it up and over the tree, a brilliant shot that led to a birdie putt inside of 6 feet.

His smile indicated that the shot met with his approval, even if his standing is further from the lead than he’d like.

Then again, he could have McIlroy’s place, which is near hopeless given that he’s a mile behind and trailing 18 other players. Like Mickelson, McIlroy finished strong, with birdies at 17 and 18, but in one of the most inexplicable statistics on the major-championship landscape, the wunderkind remains mystified by the place. When he double-bogeyed the par-4 ninth, he was out in 40, meaning he has posted at least one score of 40 or more for nine holes in each of the past five Masters.

There was the 40 on the back in last year’s second round, the 42 he had on the back in Round 3 in 2013, the 42 on the front in Round 3 in 2012, and the infamous 43 that took him over the back nine in 2011 when he tried to rewrite the adage to read the Masters ends on the back nine on Sunday.

It is a harrowing memory, but it provides good levity when he chooses, such as when reporters asked the Northern Irishman if Spieth’s five-stroke lead was insurmountable.

He indicated reporters had come to the right place, because “I know better than most people what can happen with the lead around here.”

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