Rory McIlroy is not out of it at Augusta National, where two flagsticks delivered two very different results emblematic of his tortured history here.
For Rory McIlroy, Augusta National always seems to take as much as it gives. The balance always seems to end up at zero and he can never quite sneak out of here after a week feeling like he got away with one or got the best of it. Even the pins are keeping account and Friday’s round was a tale of two flagsticks.
In the second round, his Masters seemed to take off at the 6th hole. He’d been uneven throughout the start of his round, getting a great look at eagle at the par-5 second and then inexplicably three-jacking the short third hole in some gusty winds that seemed to impact him more with the putter. After an all-world birdie from the pine straw at the 5th, McIlroy came to the 6th at even-par. He hit a solid tee shot that got an unfortunate bounce off the fringe and spun back down one of Augusta’s most significantly sloped greens. He was inches from having a great look at birdie to now having to make a hit-and-hope attempt to get up the steep grade without hammering it too far past the hole on these rapid greens.
Just moments before Rory came through the 6th, Lee Westwood stood in a similar spot, crushed the ball with his putter, and then still watched it roll back down to his feet and past his original mark. Now there was Rory, who looked shaky so far, trying to figure out how to attack this two-tiered green. He pulled a wedge, took a practice swing, thought about it, and then went back to his bag and caddie JP Fitzgerald. McIlroy pulled a different club and sized up his shot.
Given the history here and all the buildup each time he comes through, you tense up on almost every shot with Rory. It seems like the round could go sideways or take off with every swing or stroke. No one else in the field gives you that feeling. This chip shot was as precarious and tense as ever. Then he made the swing and popped a low runner up the slope. It was running hot as it hit the second tier, and then, Augusta gave him one.
— Masters Tournament (@TheMasters) April 7, 2017
McIlroy immediately flexed every muscle in his right arm, outstretching his fist as soon as it went down. For the first time in this Masters, he was in the red and exhaled with relief. He smiled continuously and the tenseness subsided momentarily. A young fan got the ball which he rolled into into the crowd as hot as it was when it hit the stick.
While it may be difficult at Augusta for Rory, it’s not a mess. He gets hot for at least one stretch every year here, and often multiple days. There are just those stretches where it gets a little pukey and that leads to a top 10 instead of a win. This felt like the start of run toward the top of the board — finally in the red with back-to-back birdies and a shorter par-4 and a par-5 ahead of him.
Augusta would take it back, however, waiting until the last moment. Even the flagsticks here don’t forget. At the 18th hole, McIlroy hit what looked like his best approach shot of the day. My colleague next to me, Kevin Van Valkenburg, called it in the air, “He flagged it.” Moments later, a likely birdie became a likely bogey as the ball cracked off the pin and bounded down the front of the green.
It’s the unluckiest break in golf and instantly reminded observers of the cruelty done to Tiger Woods at the 15th just four years ago. Unlike Tiger’s ball there, Rory’s stayed dry but he was obviously fuming, dropkicking his club in frustration. It was a too perfect shot taking advantage of a monster drive and he still got a bogey that dropped him over par for the tournament.
Rory has an unrequited love with Augusta. It’s a course that should suit his strengths and a place where he should collect green jackets, and might could have one or two already. Yet there’s always some stretch where he gives away shots that mitigate all the brilliant stretches that make him the most intoxicating player to watch in the world.
McIlroy has spoken at length about his struggles and close calls here, saying he hates the interminable length and all the build-up between the last major of the year and the Masters. Needing it to complete a career slam, which only five players have ever accomplished, always adds to the overwhelming pressure each trip around Augusta. In an interview last winter, he discussed his ever-changing routine to prepare for the Masters and the different approaches he’s acquired after seeking counsel about the tournament over the years.
There’s a lot of that goes on; a lot of tight swings where you’re almost making sure you’re missing it in the right spot, instead of maybe just saying, “I’m not going to go at the pin, I’m going to go here but be aggressive for that spot.”
On Friday, he went at the pin anyways, hit some solid shots, got rewarded, then robbed.
This year, McIlroy will go to the weekend just outside the top 10 but it could have been much more. He survived through two windy days and a Friday round where his driving, usually his strength, was a bit wild. Augusta got even at the 18th. The big number has not come. Now here’s hoping the hot streak starts Saturday and those flagsticks stay the hell out of the way.