AUGUSTA, Ga. – As the sun began to duck behind the pines and with patrons already starting to make their way toward Augusta National’s gates early Thursday evening, Rory McIlroy stood on the 18th green, awaiting a par putt for even-par 72, and looked up at the leaderboard.
Charley Hoffman, 7 under.
“Unbelievable, just incredible,” McIlroy said after tapping home the putt to end the day tied for 12th, but seven shots back of Hoffman, the first-round leader at this 81st Masters.
“I thought if anyone broke 70 today that would’ve been an unbelievable score. … That’s some golf. I’m walking off there, after my start, ecstatic with a 72, and he’s posting 65.”
Hoffman’s unmatched number aside, McIlroy had plenty to be pleased with. He got off to a rough start with an opening 3-over 39 on the front nine, but fought back with deft touch on the greens to salvage a level-par round in difficult, blustery conditions.
“I know I did my best out there and I gritted it out,” McIlroy said, “and I would’ve ripped someone’s hand off for a 72 on the 10th tee.”
McIlroy began his back nine by missing greens at Nos. 10, 11 and 12. But he made crucial par putts to get up and down on each of the three holes.
“I’ve put a lot of hours in on the putting green with (putting coach) Phil (Kenyon) over the past few months, specifically on putts like that, inside 10 feet, having to hole those putts to keep your round going,” said McIlroy, who was third in the field in strokes gained: putting (2.943) and made 15 of 16 putts inside 10 feet.
“My short game really saved me today. 10, 11, 12 were huge. To get those three up and down, and not that I had much momentum, but at least have something going into that stretch where I could pick up a couple (of shots).”
After driving the ball into the right rough at the par-5 13th, McIlroy took a long iron and fired it right in line with the flag. One problem, though: it was short, hitting the bank in front of the green and kicking back into the hazard.
The patrons at Amen Corner must have said a prayer for McIlroy, however, because the golf gods answered it. McIlroy’s ball was playable and he was able to make his first birdie of the day.
“For that ball to stay up and make birdie from it was a huge bonus,” McIlroy said.
He added a birdie at the par-5 15th and another after sticking his tee ball close at the par-3 16th. Another big up-and-down at the finishing hole and McIlroy had done himself proud. He put his head down, showed grit and determination, and got another quest for the career Grand Slam off to a nice start.
Just not as nice as Hoffman’s. But as McIlroy reminded everyone: “They don’t give out green jackets on Thursdays.”