AUGUSTA, Ga. — Friday at the Masters was one of those days when a round would often get away from Rory McIlroy. Swirling winds and treacherous greens made for arduous scoring, and a series of early bogeys suggested McIlroy could be among the many who would be derailed, defeated and departing.
Instead, it was an uncommonly patient McIlroy who navigated his way around Augusta National’s many landmines with the cautious focus on the task usually found in a bomb disposal expert.
The four-time major winner realized early in the second round that moving up the leaderboard would be a bonus, standing still an achievement.
“I played the first six holes in one-over par and I had two birdies in those six holes,” he said.
“The conditions were a little more difficult than they were yesterday. Pin positions were a little tougher. I steadied the ship after the sixth hole didn’t make a bogey after that. I feel as though I could have shot another round in the 60s. Overall 71 out there today was a good score and I’m in a nice position going into the weekend.”
McIlroy’s 71 leaves him at 4-under par, lurking just off the lead in the only major championship he has never claimed. His Thursday 69 marked the first time he had broken 70 in the Masters since his painful collapse in the final round seven years ago. It left him inside the top five. On the four previous occasions where he has been in the top 5 of a major after day one, his results show a trend that ought to be worrisome to his rivals: Win. Win. Win. Win.
Of course, McIlroy won those majors by bludgeoning courses into submission with raw power. He admitted on Friday that he’s relying more on patience this week, a trait that has taken him time to acquire.
“You don’t have to go out there and make a birdie on every hole. Pars are OK. Sometimes pars might be a little bit boring and you want to get more out of your round, but you look up at the leaderboard and you’re still there around the lead. That’s taken a while for me to adjust to,” he said. “When I first came out here on Tour I thought these guys birdied every hole and you had to hit unbelievable shot after unbelievable shot and hole the putt afterwards. It’s not quite like that. Golf is a game of making your misses not that bad and taking advantage of your good shots. So far this week I’ve been able to do that.”
Some of those good shots have been among his shortest. As play wound down Friday evening he ranked in the top 15 in strokes gained putting, continuing the flatstick form he showed last month in willing the Arnold Palmer Invitational with just 100 putts for 72 holes. At Augusta National on Thursday he holed a succession of key putts for par early on the back nine, which he said later were perhaps even more important to his momentum than the birdie putts.
McIlroy’s putting performance improved markedly after a session with PGA Tour veteran Brad Faxon six days before his win at Bay Hill. On the weekend before he arrived in Augusta, he was with Faxon again at the Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla.
With a leaderboard as crowded as the nightly bar scene at TBonz down the street — and a grim Saturday weather forecast — McIlroy knows that his newfound patience and confidence on the greens is key this weekend.
“The strategy around this course is always the same. Its take your pars and take advantage of the par 5s,” he said. “If you do that every time around here you’re going to be pretty good.”
And unlike the younger McIlroy, the wiser one we’re seeing this week knows that “pretty good” could be good enough come Sunday night.