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Rory McIlroy shows his maturity as he sets himself up for a grand Masters finale

 

By Vincent Hogan

He came to the shade of the great oak with the zestful, swinging stride of a man hurrying to a different place.

Maybe it was a trick of the light, but you sensed a certain worry fall from Rory McIlroy's shoulders last night. A second-round 71 did precisely what it needed to do on a day Augusta National made many of golf's biggest men feel small.

"Nice position to be in going into the weekend," he told us, having been ushered to the media auditorium. "The conditions today were a little bit tougher, the breeze was up, the pin positions were tougher.

"I feel I could have shot another round in the 60s, I had two good chances of birdie on 17 and 18 that I didn't convert, but 71 is a good score. Now I just need to stay patient, birdie the par-fives, keep my putts on the high side of the hole and hope for the best."

The day was an assault on the nerves of some of golf's coolest citizens. But McIlroy's Thursday smile had told a multitude. He felt precisely where he needed to be. Not centre stage, but close enough to see the whites of the leader's eyes. And any time previously he'd been top five after the opening round of a Major? He'd won.

So maybe that smile wasn't a sigh of relief, but a premonition. Had he been aware of that statistic?

"I think once you get yourself up there and you're playing well enough after day one, if you continue that good play you should be up there for the rest of the tournament," he said.

"I've always felt comfortable around the lead. It's a place that I'm familiar with and know how to deal with."

The consensus that he's a suspect scrambler had been challenged by those three closing pars, all mined from positions that could have been ruinous. And Augusta demands that kind of resilience.

Its lush and rolling treachery thieves the breath of those who've only seen it via a satellite dish. It leaves great golfers staring blankly at their cards.

Take hole six, a 180-yard par-three that is rated a lowly 13th in terms of difficulty for Augusta's 18.

It's the pin position that decides its daily personality.

Yesterday's was just on the edge of a malevolent ridge.

Rory did what's in his DNA, firing at the flag but slightly over-cooking things. He then fluffed his pitch back, leaving a putt of maybe 17ft to the edge of an open lift shaft. It was a putt he couldn't afford to commit to, thus costing him his third bogey of a torrid morning.

Directly behind, Jordan Spieth looked in need of smelling salts, his lead already lost in two holes to the crushing banality of a tightening swing.

And that was the tenor of this Georgia morning, the sense of heartbeats turning rogue. Augusta's front nine had begun pitching golf's biggest names into a tumble-dryer.

McIlroy promptly pulled his drive on seven into pine needles down the left and, marching towards it, remained purposefully deaf to the cries of 'Go Rory!' until one tip-toed to him on the voice of a child. Then just the gentlest smile and thumbs-up to a boy of maybe eight.

And he parred the next six, submitting to a kind of dry-mouthed struggle with so much around him degenerating into a demolition derby. Phil Mickelson, for example, triple-bogeyed nine.

But McIlroy's first birdie in 10 holes came on the par-five 13th, safely two-putting from the back of the green. And that set him on a roll, another coming on 14 where he swung one in from 20ft.

That brought him to four under and right in the mix again with late starters, Patrick Reed and Marc Leishman, both flying out of the blocks, birdie, birdie, birdie.

Four closing pars re-affirmed that Thursday sense of a man at peace with the thumb-prints this place leaves on your Adam's Apple. For, yet again, McIlroy stayed calm and sensible.

"After six, I just said to Harry (Diamond, caddie), 'Let's just try to hit fairways and greens. If we do that, we're going to be okay'.

Then I said to myself on the 13th tee, 'Let's make four (birdies) in the next six, sort of do what Jordan did yesterday, but I didn't quite manage it.

"But anything under par today was pretty good. I never have expectations of where I'm going to be on the leaderboard, I just want to play well. I'm in a good position, but I'm just happier with how I've felt, how I've handled certain things.

"That's been a pleasing thing. Every experience you have in this arena, you learn a little bit each time. For me, I know I don't have to go out and make a birdie on every hole, especially not on this course.

"Sometimes pars might be a little boring, you might feel you want to get a little bit more out of your round, but you look up at the leaderboard and you're still there around the lead.

"That's taken me a while to adjust to. When I first came out on Tour, I thought all these guys birdied every hole and that I'd have to hit unbelievable shot after unbelievable shot. It's not like that. Golf is making your misses not that bad and taking advantage of your good shots."

The suspicion lingers that, if he won a Masters, he could make this place his playground.

But that's the galling thing about pressure. It turns golfers into lost souls. McIlroy knows that. He understands what matters and what doesn't here.

Recently, he declared: "I don't care about the world rankings, I think about number of wins, the ability of the players against me, the number of Majors the others have.

"I don't feel I need to compare myself to anyone else, because I know what I can do."

Trouble is, in his own words, he was on "Tiger's pace" between 2011 and '14, winning four Majors. And, suddenly, he was the next new shooting star. The natural successor to Tiger. The kid who might even chase down old Jack Nicklaus.

His story is now complicated by our impatience. He almost needs that career Grand Slam as much for our fulfilment as his own. And there's only one place, one week it's on offer.

With groans and cheers yesterday, Bob Rotella's line that Augusta is "there to be had if you can let yourself have it" never seemed more apt.

And, just now, McIlroy looks as if he believes it.

Belfast Telegraph

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