Masters 2015: Battler Rory McIlroy digs in under heavy weight of expectation
Solid opening round... but Rory knows he’ll have to step up a gear
There was more grit than glory from Rory McIlroy yesterday as he clawed his way back from a nervy start at Augusta National to complete his opening round at the Masters in a one-under par 71.
McIlroy admitted he'd been "a little nervous but mostly excited" as he set out on his history-making quest for a career Grand Slam and the pressure showed on the front nine.
If the World No 1 is to win the Masters, he and the rest of the world know he must perform better on Augusta's par fives; in his anxiety to set this record straight, he hooked his drive left of the long second.
A couple of duffed short-game shots that might have been borrowed from the recent repertoire of Tiger Woods also blighted his front nine but McIlroy kept his vow to remain patient and reaped his just reward down the stretch.
"I left myself in a few awkward spots early on but I settled well, remained patient and then managed to pick off a couple of birdies on the par five 13th and 15th," he said. "All-in-all, I'm happy with my start."
Despite yesterday's blazing sunlight and 90 degrees head, Augusta's greens were left soft and vulnerable by this week's rain.
And if McIlroy felt under any added pressure on the first tee because of the looming career Grand Slam it didn't show in his opening drive, which drew gasps of awe from the packed crowds surrounding the tee box as it screamed 324 yards onto the left of the fairway.
"Wow," said the tall, athletic grey-haired man standing in front of me. "He's 30 yards past Phil."
"Yeah," replied his mate. "But Phil hit 3-wood!"
Phil Mickelson, a three-time winner around Augusta, is America's idol and as they walked after their opening tee shots, most, if not all, the hollers of encouragement were for him .
McIlroy played that opener well, going within a hair's breadth of his first birdie in 22 Masters rounds at Augusta's daunting first with an 11-foot putt.
Yet the pressure the Ulsterman plainly feels to perform better on Augusta's par fives showed itself minutes later on the second tee, when he hooked his tee shot left and so deep into the towering pines, the ball bounced on a side slope and straight into the stream bed.
Lee Trevino once joked that Delta Airlines had a ticket desk in that perilous spot to the left of two, where visiting golfers could book their early flights home.
McIlroy had no such intention. Dropping his ball under penalty on the pine needles, McIlroy smothered down on a mid-iron and hooked a low ball beneath the branches and out onto the fairway, 137 yards from the hole.
He then hit an exquisite, towering 9-iron to within inches of the dangerous back pin and holed the putt for a splendid par.
In six previous visits to the Masters, McIlroy has seriously under-performed on Augusta's par fives, ceding 27 shots to Mickelson on them in that time.
Yet after his tee shot, the Ulsterman could be happy to post a par to Lefty's two-putt birdie at two.
He'd be distinctly dissatisfied, however, with his par four at the short third.
After Mickelson and McIlroy both hit their drivers into the hollow short left of the green, the Ulsterman chunked the pitch, his ball coming to a rest at the top of the crest, while the American got up and down for his three.
McIlroy's second duff shot came just shy of the par three sixth, his chip failing to make it over the top of the steep rise between him and the flag before rolling back almost to where he was standing.
With typical resolve, he rebounded well, making a glorious birdie at seven, a hole he's not found easy in the past.
Mind you, being able to hit a drive 329 yards straight down this narrow fairway offered McIlroy the perfect platform from which to hit a 121-yard wedge to six feet.
In the past, he's courted too closely with the large bunker to the right of the eighth fairway but this time he flew past that trap.
Yet this fine 308-yard uphill tee shot yielded nought as McIlroy missed the green to the right, chipped to the fringe and took two to get down from 15 feet.
After untidy bogeys at six and seven, Mickelson rubbed Rory's nose in it on eight by hitting the shot of the day, a 244-yard 3-wood to two feet for eagle.
One of the principal reasons why many feel, including McIlroy himself, that he has just one top-10 at the Masters (last year's tie for eighth) is the young man's aggressive nature, which he shared with Greg Norman.
Certainly, McIlroy's second into nine yesterday stirred memories of the Australian's infamous, ill-fated approach there on Sunday in 1996 as it pitched near the pin and back down heartbreak hill.
Again, Rory did well to save par. Yet there'd be no such reprieve at 11 after McIlroy narrowly missed the green to the right, though his drought at the par fives was broken at 13 after he hit a 182-yard approach from the semi-rough high on the right of the fairway to the heart of the green.
One could almost hear Jack Nicklaus intoning 'told you so' as his young friend two-putted from 67 feet for a birdie four.
He then placed discretion before aggression at 15 to register the fascinating birdie four that saw him dip below par for the first time.
Blocked out after hitting a giant tee shot way up the left, McIlroy was wide right of the greenside bunker before cleverly leaving the pin to its own devices with the chip.
The reward was a 22-foot putt for birdie which he holed to ease into the red numbers for the first time before finishing out his opening round in assured fashion.
Compatriot Darren Clarke's two-over 74 was a laudable effort after two double-bogey sixes in three holes on the front nine.
"You'd think that I've been here enough times to know where I should miss it and where I shouldn't, then two three-putts to follow them up," said the Ryder Cup captain.
"Obviously I didn't mean to hit them there. One was a poor shot (fifth) and the other was a little bit of mud on it that I didn't see."
Fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell, meanwhile, had a mixed opening round but posted a one-under 71.