It all clicks for Irishman who wins engaging battle of the young guns
World No 9's masterclass of power and finesse defies the critics who doubt his major potential
Friday, 8 April 2011
It was the perfect morning to be young, gifted and playing in the Masters. It was the perfect morning for watching three golfers who are young, gifted and playing in the Masters. Of course, there are no guarantees handed out on the first tee at Augusta, as Rickie Fowler and Jason Day can attest, but 18 holes later it was indeed just about the perfect day for Rory McIlroy as the 21-year-old raced to the head of the leaderboard with a seven-under 65.
Only the previous night McIlroy had been the carefree youngster throwing an American football around in the street with some friends from home. "We were making a bit too much noise and got told off by the lady living across the street," the Northern Irishman admitted. She probably got more of a shock discovering yesterday that the youngster was actually a professional golfer and was making noise for all the right reasons with seven birdies.
In 74 previous Masters, no first round leader was younger than a 23-year-old Seve Ballesteros. McIlroy can thrill just as much as the great Spaniard. When in full cry there are few finer sights in golf. Take the 62 with which he won at Quail Hollow last year in America or the first round of 63, tying the major record, at St Andrews later in the summer. The power is easily uncoiled, the finesse around the greens touched with genius.
When everything clicks, watch out. It was apparent early on a glorious spring morning that something special was in the offing. His chip from short of the first green stopped within a couple of feet of the hole and a par was assured. Both his playing partners in this trio of young starlets were also short of the green but did not manage the delicate business around the green nearly as well and each took a bogey.
At the par-five second, McIlroy laid up with his second shot in the perfect place short right of the green. He chipped up between the bunkers and sank the birdie putt. At the next his little pitch and run was even better. Fowler had already tried a high version from a similar spot and failed to keep it on the green. McIlroy went in low – a shot developed at the great links of Portrush or County Down, no doubt – and the ball fizzed on the green before stopping within six feet.
In the preliminaries, with Luke Donald touted as a contender and the Green Jacket seemingly Phil Mickelson's for the tailoring, it looked as if the short game has become the new long game at Augusta. Bombing is one thing, but if you cannot get it up and down, forget it. Some have been sniffy about McIlroy's short game of late. Butch Harmon, Mickelson's coach, said recently: "Rory is a great talent and should one day be a Masters champion but I'm not sure his short game is of the quality of some players."
What a response. Three greens, three putts, two birdies. At the long par-three fourth, he sent his tee-shot right on-line and then holed a 20-footer up the tier. Four greens, four putts, three under. At the seventh McIlroy faced his first crisis moment. From the bunker his recovery spun back to six feet but he holed that to save par. A 10-footer at the ninth gave him a fourth birdie of an outward 32.
McIlroy was delivering the goods but it was a fun group to watch. McIlroy, in his third Masters, was the veteran while the others were on their debut. Day, 23, is a feisty Australian while Fowler, in his second year on the PGA Tour, has been a breath of fresh air. His swing is loopy and he plays by feel, a potential successor to Mickelson. His wardrobe is always garish but compared to the all-orange he reserves for Sundays in tribute to his old college (with a Green Jacket?), yesterday's all-green was in keeping for the Masters.
Fowler got everyone's attention when he birdied the last four holes to earn a half with Edoardo Molinari at last year's Ryder Cup. He was voted by his colleagues as the rookie of the year in America last year despite not winning, which was controversial since McIlroy was also eligible and had won. Clearly, there is no issue between the two of them as they chatted happily while ambling along the fairways. "It was a great draw being drawn with Rickie and Jason," McIlroy said. "They like to put the young guys together here." The topics of conversation? "Cars, boats, anything but golf."
A low-key approach to the tournament has been three weeks off the tour, some practice rounds here last week and not arriving this week until Tuesday evening. It should ensure he is well rested for the weekend now he is running at the head of the field.
McIlroy has said he was disappointed with winning only two of his first 100-odd tournaments. He has set a target of 10 of the next 100. With McIlroy, eagerness and patience are in a constant battle. It does not help when he bumped into Jack Nicklaus in the locker room and the Golden Bear said he won his first green jacket at age 23. Youth is only an excuse for so long, was the message.
Three birdies coming home, including at the 11th where his five-iron finished between the pond and the flag, were the worst it could have been. Four other good chances slipped by, including at the last. But McIlroy was looking to the positives, as were his companions. Day had four birdies in a row to rescue a 72, while Fowler birdied four of the last five for a 70. It was fun all round for the kids.