Scott Fowler

At Masters, Rory McIlroy moves within striking distance

Rory McIlroy follows through on his second shot from the seventh fairway during second round action of The Masters on Friday. His 71 was one of the best scores of the day.
Rory McIlroy follows through on his second shot from the seventh fairway during second round action of The Masters on Friday. His 71 was one of the best scores of the day.

In Charlotte 11 months ago, Rory McIlroy put on an exhibition of golf at the Wells Fargo Championship that we had never seen before.

McIlroy shot a 61 on Saturday, won the tournament by seven shots on Sunday and obliterated the course record with a 21-under-par over four days. McIlroy characterized his final round at Quail Hollow as “sort of boring,” given the tremendous lead that he held all day.

That is the sort of thing McIlroy can do when he’s at his best. And he will need to be at his best this weekend if he is going to complete the career Grand Slam he badly wants. He’s close. With the Masters halfway done, McIlroy has moved into second place.

On a blustery Friday at the Masters when Augusta National bared its teeth all day, McIlroy was one of the few who did not flinch. His 71 was one of the best scores of the day – anything under par was exemplary due to the gusty unpredictability of the wind – and put him in the final group on Saturday at 2:50 p.m. with Jordan Spieth. It’s a glamorous pairing, as two of golf’s new “Big Three” go head to head again with Spieth leading McIlroy by a single shot.

“The most comfortable thing for me on this golf course is knowing that even if you are five or six shots back, things can change quite quickly,” McIlroy said Friday. “I’ve been on the opposite end of that where things can start to get away from you. But that gives me confidence knowing that if you are a little bit behind, you can definitely make a comeback.”

McIlroy was No. 1 in the world when he carded those wonderful scores in Charlotte last May and became the tournament’s first two-time winner (he has Wells Fargo on his schedule again next month). But McIlroy has dropped to No. 3 since then, behind Jason Day and Spieth. If he could win the Masters – a tournament he has flirted with winning several times before – he would complete golf’s career Grand Slam at age 26. Only five other men have done golf’s four professional majors – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods.

Given the strong winds Friday at Augusta National, McIlroy said he would have been quite happy to par the final three holes and get into the clubhouse with an overall score of 2-under-par. Instead, he rolled in a birdie putt on the 16th green that he started six feet left of the hole “and basically let gravity and wind take it the rest of the way,” as McIlroy said. Then he made a great par save at No. 18, which meant he played the final six holes in 3-under-par.

McIlroy will start Saturday just one stroke behind Spieth – who had a very human-looking 74 Friday but still led outright for his sixth straight round at Augusta. “I’d rather be playing with someone less threatening, to be honest,” Spieth said afterward of his pairing with McIlroy.

For years, McIlroy was always the youngest player in his group. He was a golfing prodigy who bashed a 405-yard drive in competition at age 15. Now it is not at all unusual for McIlroy to face players younger than he is – Spieth is only 22. Although he still looks quite young, McIlroy is a weathered, freckle-faced Irishman who has seen most of what golf has to offer already.

“I’m trying to beat guys on this leaderboard that I’ve beaten before, so I need to take confidence from that and know that I’ve been in this position before,” McIlroy said. “Maybe not on this golf course, but I’ve been in this position before in big tournaments and been able to get the job done.”

McIlroy said he knew his pairing with Spieth in the final group would generate “buzz” for the tournament but said it wouldn’t affect him. “Look, I know it’s a very big weekend for me,” he said. “I know that..... But I’ve only got the mental capacity to focus on me right now and especially how tough it is out there.... I think I’m going to have to do that again tomorrow regardless of who I play with, because it looks like the conditions are going to be similar.”

Indeed, the winds are supposed to be high again on Saturday. Conditions are likely to be more benign and better suited to low scores on Sunday. McIlroy isn’t going to shoot a 61 like he did on a Saturday in Charlotte 11 months ago. But he is playing so well right now that the green jacket he so badly wants is nearly in his grasp – if he can find a way to beat Spieth.

The Masters

Course: Augusta National Golf Club (7,435 yards, par-72).

Television: Saturday, 3-7 p.m. (CBS); Sunday, 2-7 p.m. (CBS)