Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

The Masters: Rory McIlroy has drive to succeed

Masters favourite Mcilroy makes a promising, solid start as Augusta course bares its teeth

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 10:  Rory McIlroy lines up a putt on the 18th green during the first round of the 2014 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 10, 2014 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 10: Rory McIlroy lines up a putt on the 18th green during the first round of the 2014 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 10, 2014 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Contender: Rory McIlroy drives off at the fourth on his way to a 71 at the Masters at Augusta last night

RORY McILROY fired a phenomenal opening fusillade with his crimson Covert driver at The Masters yesterday, but finished an intriguing opening day at Augusta National frustrated with his putter after racking up 34 putts in his one-under par 71.

Still it was a decent enough start by Northern Ireland's pre-tournament favourite, who lay three shots off the pace set by clubhouse leader Bill Hass with an impressive four-under 68.

Yet Australian Adam Scott cut a most imposing figure in the American's slipstream after serving clear notice of his intent to hang onto the Green Jacket with a resilient 69.

Jonas Blixt of Sweden and Americans Kevin Stadler and Jimmy Walker, three of the record 24 Masters newscomers in this year's 97-man field, were prominent close to the top of the leaderboard after impressive two-under par 70s.

"I think that they set the course up very difficult today," said Ulsterman McIlroy.

"So, overall, it was a good day. It was solid."

This was a mature, measured performance from McIlroy, though he had two three-putt bogeys on his card at 12 and the last.

"Sometimes I wasn't putting the ball in the right place and taking two putts to get out of there," he said.

"But, for the most part, I felt I put my ball in the positions it needed to be in. It was just one of those days, it was tough to get it close to the hole. The greens are firming up. The wind was all over the place. Anything under par was a good score."

McIlroy expects the greens to be firmer when he goes out this evening. "I wouldn't mind if they were a little softer. But it was a tough set-up. I think that they really wanted to do that."

A fast and hard set-up "brings the guys that don't hit it as far into the mix a little bit more," McIlroy said.

"Because it's not just about power then, it's about precision.

"It becomes more of a mental challenge than anything else, just playing to your spots. It almost becomes like chess, where you're just making these moves. That hasn't been my forte in the past, but I'll learn to love it this week."

They don't go for long introductions on the first tee at Augusta National.

The starter might precede a player's name with a loud 'Fore Please!' as he did yesterday for McIlroy's two playing companions, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed.

McIlroy, the 'old man' in this three-ball at age 24, was introduced by name only – no matter, the vast crowd packed around the first tee knew exactly who McIlroy was, where he hails from and his status in the game.

And if they didn't, McIlroy announced himself in truly spectacular fashion with a booming drive that was followed down the fairway by one loud and very long word of appreciation from the chunky American standing at my left shoulder. "Jeeeeeeeeezzzzzzz," he said as that Nike ball soared 315 yards into the fairway long and left of the yawning bunker which sits on the right of this difficult dogleg.

Don't know if our vociferous friend made it as far as the second tee or the third.

If he had, we would probably have heard him as McIlroy made two more booming statements of intent with that crimson covert.

Not missing you so much already, could have been the message to the injured Tiger Woods as he sat at home in Orlando recovering from recent back surgery.

McIlroy's thrilling to watch when he's Tiger-striping his driver this way, even if the results weren't quite as spectacular as you'd expect on a gloriously cloudless and windless day, when Augusta National was still just a little vulnerable after recent rainfall.

McIlroy must have caught his wedge into the first a little heavy and his ball rolled down off the front.

Given his painful record on this hole, a little caution with the approach was understandable.

A nice pitch and tap-in putt later, he had made a relatively satisfying par.

One couldn't say the same of his five at the second.

After another ICBM of a drive landed in the fairway, McIlroy caught his mid-iron approach just the tiniest bit fat and was a tad unlucky when it caught the front left bunker high, albeit high up the face.

Short-sided, he hit is escape 15 feet past the pin and two putted for par.

Reed (23) took the honour with a nice up-and-down birdie from left of the green and, after he and fellow Texan Spieth (20) both took four-iron off the tee at the 350-yard third hole, McIlroy sent a buzz of anticipation through the gallery by pulling out the driver.

One explosive swing later, his ball lay just 15 yards shy of the green. The young Ulsterman pitched to three feet and putted for a fabulously facile birdie.

When he holed from 20 feet for another at the tricky fifth, it looked as if McIlroy might indeed be capable of turning the clock back to Thursday in 2011, when he shot 65, his personal best at Augusta National.

Sadly, he stalled with a bogey six at the eighth hole which, in yesterday's benign conditions, was like fiancée Caroline Woznaicki's bright pink hair – shocking!

By-the-by, McIlroy's fingers were still stained during Wednesday's par-three competition by the part he played in the tennis star's stated bid to match her hair with the azaleas, giving new meaning to the term 'caught red-handed'.

McIlroy did well to save par at his nemesis, the 10th hole, after hitting his approach a good 30 feet left of the pin on a green which tilts sharply from back to front. His first effort went past well up on the high side and he needed to make a clutch five footer for par.

A three-putt bogey from 40 feet at 12 left McIlroy bow-headed with frustration.

Though birdie fours at 13 and 15 put the spring back in his step, the Holywood native rounded off his day with a frustrating bogey at 18.

Spieth matched McIlroy's 71, while Reed shot 73 after three finishing bogeys, a gut-wrenching spell in which he putted off the green at 17.

After hitting his tee-shot close to the lip of the fairway bunker, McIlroy's approach landed on the front, lower-level of the green, a country mile from the cup. His first putt cruised a good six feet past and he missed the difficult six footer down the hill for the par.

As ever, those Grand Masters of Augusta, Arnie Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player got the tournament off to its usual classy start at first light. Yet you had to get up early to catch these venerable gents as they played their ceremonial tee shots a good five minutes early.

Mind you, they made up for it in the interview room afterwards, regaling the world's media at length with their views. One of the great pleasures of working at the Masters is simply listening as these legends willingly share their vast experience and knowledge.

They remain competitive, all three warming up on the range beforehand, Nicklaus explained "firstly not to hurt yourself and secondly not to embarrass yourself" adding after a short pause "perhaps most importantly not to embarrass yourself."

Palmer (84) hit first to mark the 50th anniversary of his fourth and final Masters win in 1964. The 2014 Masters was under way.

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