Rory McIlroy – Masters enigma. Is he about to assume control of the tournament or will the Green Jacket remain out of his grasp for another year? Take your pick.
Rory McIlroy moved ominously into position at the Masters on Friday, when even a piece of outrageous misfortune could not prevent him from taking his place within five shots of the unlikely early halfway leader, Charley Hoffman.
The four-time major champion, improving by the hole, quite literally flagged his approach on the last. But instead of leaving him with a tap-in to go into the weekend in red figures, it ricocheted off the pin and bounded off short and right of the green. No matter. As a relaxed McIlroy knew full well afterwards, shot-making of that quality will only be rewarded over the weekend.
At the halfway stage, following rounds of 72 and 73, he has expertly manoeuvred his way into position to make a charge through the field.
Better still, with Dustin Johnson injured, Jordan Spieth off to a poor start, and Jason Day understandably distracted by his mother’s ill health, the Northern Irishman won’t be put off by the quality of the leaderboard. None of them have a head start going into the weekend.
No disrespect to the unheralded likes of Hoffman and William McGirt, veterans Fred Couples and Phil Mickelson, major nearly men Sergio Garcia and Matt Kuchar or Masters debutants Thomas Pieters and Jon Rahm, but McIlroy will hardly be intimidated by any of them.
He is only likely to get better as the tournament goes on, having now played his way into contention.
With his towering ball flight, the wind is not McIlroy’s friend. It is therefore to his credit that he has avoided any high numbers in the blustery conditions of the first two days.
The forecasted benign weekend conditions are ripe for a trademark birdie blitz.
The stage is set for McIlroy to move into position to claim that long-overdue first Green Jacket.
Rory McIlroy completed 36 skittish holes at Augusta and can count himself fortunate to be within five shots of the lead.
He scrambled his way to a modest 73 that could have been even worse but for a fortuitous chip-in on the sixth. His over-hit chip slapped into the pin and dropped into the hole when a bogey – or worse – seemed inevitable.
The omens, however, are not promising. McIlroy’s strength is his driving yet he has found only 10 out of 28 fairways over the first two days. The field’s average is almost double that.
Even more worryingly, his attempt from four feet to save par at the 18th did not even touch the hole. This combination of errant driving and suspect short putting is hardly likely to lead to the Green Jacket he so desperately craves – perhaps too much just now – to complete his career Grand Slam.
Much like Tiger Woods before him, McIlroy’s template for winning majors involves dominating from the start and accelerating away from the field. At Congressional in the 2011 US Open he led wire to wire and won by 11. At the 2014 Open, he hit the front on Thursday at Royal Liverpool and was never seen again.
Playing catch-up, so far at least, is not his style. With the birdies tend to come bogeys – or worse – and from five back at halfway you just can’t afford to make mistakes.
It is not just the number of players between McIlroy and the lead – it is also the array of world-class talent he must first catch and then surpass.
The 27-year-old knows as well as anyone that the likes of the three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, to name just one, is highly unlikely to move aside obligingly.
And if not Mickelson, then how about the in-form Rickie Fowler, playing the best golf of his career and surely ripe for a maiden major win?
That’s before we get to two of his Ryder Cup partners, whose talents he knows only too well. Thomas Pieters, so impressive over the first two days, is exactly where McIlroy would love to be. While Sergio Garcia has never looked as comfortable here in Georgia.
In summary, much will need to go McIlroy’s way – and quickly – if he is not to have to wait at least another 12 months to win the tournament he wants more than any other.
Scenario A or Scenario B?
Rory McIlroy – Masters enigma. Which way will it go? Tune in to the Masters over the weekend to find out…