Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

James Lawton: McIlroy's focus on short game pays off with 65

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 07: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland pitches to the second green during the first round of the 2011 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 7, 2011 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Rory McIlroy is no respecter of reputation. Nine months after bringing the grand old lady that is the Old Course to her knees with a 63, so the Ulsterman dared treat the Georgia beauty in the same contemptible manner.

With a 65 the 21-year-old became the youngest first-round leader in Masters history.



What a way to start the 75th edition of the season’s opening major. McIlroy’s seven-birdied, no-bogeyed magnificence was just what this glorious spectacle deserved. After two third places in his last two majors, and three third places in the last five majors, McIlroy is on the premises yet again and along with the big-hitting Spaniard Alvaro Quiros leading a double-pronged challenge for the first European green-jacket this century.



Yet recent experience warns the boy of the perils. At St Andrews he scored an 80 on a windswept second day; an ordeal which will figure large in his mind today. “I think it will be a massive help,“ said McIlroy, after breaking 70 for the first time at Augusta. “Looking back, it was a very valuable lesson in my development. I'll be thinking about it tomorrow and thinking how I can do things better than that day. Shooting a score like that? well, you should really never make that mistake again.”

He added: “It's possible that I can go out and shoot another 65, but I know that it's also very likely I'm not going to do that. So if I do find myself in a bit of trouble, I'm going to have to stick in there, grind it out.”



A grind was the furthest image from the admiring observer’s mind yesterday. This was vintage Rory; if it possible to be vintage at an age when your friends are still in college, that is. It seemed effortless, as he blasted into the middle of the fairways and from there at the pins. It could have been so much better, historic even, but at least four makeable putts stayed up. Only two 63s have ever been recorded here.



“I’d take a 65 all day long,” said McIlroy. “I wouldn't say it wasn't as spectacular as the 63 at St Andrews but it was very solid from start to finish. I've struggled with the front nine over the past couple of years and made a point last Friday to play 27 and go out on the front nine again and just make sure I'm very comfortable with the shots I need to hit there.”



Comfortable? He was four-under at the turn. McIlroy looked and played relaxed from the outset. Little wonder really, seeing as he has brought a group of pals over to stay with him in a rented house near to the course. On Wednesday night they were to be found playing American Football in the street - until a elderly female neighbour told them off. Sometimes it is all too easy to forget how young McIlroy happens to be.



This is only his ninth major and yesterday was only his seventh competitive round at Augusta. “I'm still relatively inexperienced but I feel as if I'm a pretty quick learner. I'm getting there,“ said McIlroy, who missed the USPGA play-off by a mere shot last August. “There’s no substitute for experience, especially around here. But I’ve learned where to miss it in the right spots.” In truth, these wasn’t too much missing going on out there.



This was exactly what he wanted and indeed expected after a three-week break, the last two of which were spent in Florida working with his long-time coach, Michael Bannon. The gym-work he has been doing with Steve McGregor, Lee Westwood’s fitness coach, has firmed up both his figure and his resolve. It has been the ideal build-up. With all the attention on Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and the other Europeans above him in the rankings, the world No 9 came in here somewhat under the radar. Well, his figure has suddenly lit up the screen.



For so long on the first day he seemed certain to be the lone pacesetter. But Quiros is capable of the most outrageous birdie runs and with three birdies in the last four holes the player in the very last grouping drew level with McIlroy, leaving two shots back to the Korean duo, Kj Choi and YE Yang, in third. Quiros, the world No 23, is made for Augusta and gives the blue and gold cause so much more reason for hope. Martin Kaymer, meanwhile, provided, exactly none.



The world No 1 shot a disastrous 78 to make a fourth missed cut in as many Masters a possibility, if not a probability. “I can’t play this course,“ said Kaymer. No kidding. The German’s playing partner Lee Westwood fared much with a level-par 72, but the world No2 bogeyed the last and was left frustrated with yet another poor putting display. His mood was in direct contrast to that of Woods after a 71.



“I hit a lot of beautiful putts,” said Tiger, looking for his first victory in 17 months. “And they were just skirting the edge, so hopefully they will start going in. But I'm very pleased. I'm right there in the ball game, I'm only six back and we’ve got a lot of golf ahead of us.”



Woods, however, also recognised the quality of the golfer ahead of him. “Rory’s got a lot of talent,” said the last golfer to win a Masters aged 21. “And as we all know he's got a wonderful swing and it's just a matter of time before he starts winning a bunch of tournaments.”



One man with a bunch of green-jackets is the defending champion, Mickelson, and maybe yesterday’s exhibition of golfing escapology explains why. Mickelson hit only four fairways (the fewest out of the entire field), hit 12 greens in regulation and still managed a 70.



This was one back from England’s Ross Fisher - the first man out on the course - and the resurgent Sergio Garcia. Also on two-under with Mickelson is the world No 6, Paul Casey, after four birdies in the last six holes and on level par is the world No 4 Luke Donald, who was three-under for the last six.



Alas there was disappointment for Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell with 74s, while Padraig Harrington latest challenge for a fourth major is all but over after a neck injury sustained while limbering up almost forced him to withdraw. A 77 signified he probably should have. At least Ireland has Rory to cheer on. Brilliant Rory.

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