McIlroy making a charge at The Masters

A 71 might not sound like much of a charge at Augusta National, the verdant place where the reigning
Rory McIlroy putts on the second green during the second round of The Masters Friday at Augusta National Golf Club.
Rory McIlroy putts on the second green during the second round of The Masters Friday at Augusta National Golf Club.

A 71 might not sound like much of a charge at Augusta National, the verdant place where the reigning Masters champion Jordan Spieth finished at 18-under par last year.

But 71 was certainly a round worth toasting at the Masters on Friday, with nerves fraying and tree limbs swaying in the gusty conditions. Although Rory McIlroy had plenty of misadventures on the trail to his 71, it put him back in clear contention to win the only major championship he is missing.

McIlroy’s mood-swinging 71 left him at 3-under par after two rounds and alone in second place in the clubhouse. He is one shot behind Spieth, who shot a 74, battling the conditions and backing away from putts and approach shots, on occasion, in the wind.

“I think that’s the hardest thing, just trusting clubs,” McIlroy said to ESPN after the round.

It was a day to question one’s judgment — a day when the implement in your hand was only an abrupt wind shift away from becoming the wrong implement.

“Go ahead! Full commitment!” said Terry Mundy, Ian Poulter’s caddie, urging Poulter to hit his tee shot on the watery, treacherous 12th hole. Poulter still missed the green.

There were other such exhortations, along with plenty of mutterings. But McIlroy maintained a relatively even strain amid all the changes in his fortunes and scorecard.

His round featured five birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey on the par-3 fourth hole that might have knocked a less stable champion off balance for longer. But McIlroy, whose attempt to win the only major he lacks was the pretournament focus last year, has not been the prime focus this year with Spieth defending his title and Jason Day on a roll.

“I definitely feel I’m coming in this year without as much hyper-anticipation,” he said. “You’ve got Jordan coming back as defending champion, and Jason coming in as No. 1 in the world.”

He added: “I felt I was just part of the narrative instead of the narrative.”

But he will certainly be a big part of the narrative today.

“I feel so much better about myself after today than I did yesterday,” McIlroy said.

On Thursday, McIlroy bogeyed two of the final three holes en route to his 70. On Friday, he played the final six holes in 3-under par and the final three holes in 1-under par.

To manage it, he needed a great escape on the 18th after driving into the trees, hunching low to try to get a clear view out of trouble.

“There actually wasn’t a window,” he said.

But he punched the ball low off the pine straw and onto the fairway, where he then hit a terrific approach shot that landed high above the hole and rolled slowly back to within 12 feet of the pin.

He then holed his par putt.

“Huge,” said McIlroy, who had made a long, curling birdie putt on the 16th.

Spieth, on the other hand, struggled. Although he had two birdies in his first three holes to reach 7-under and built a five-stroke lead, a double bogey at the fifth was an ominous sign. Over the next 13 holes, he collected four more bogeys, including at Nos. 16 and 17.

At 2-under par were Danny Lee and Scott Piercy.

Lee’s misadventures included a double bogey on No. 3, shots that ended up in the water on No. 12 and No. 13 and consecutive bogeys at the finish after three-putting on 17 and 18. But all that still did not remove him from the leaderboard.

“I’m very happy with where I finished today, but I am very disappointed that I made two 3-putts in a row,” Lee said. “They were all good putts, and I just didn’t see it going back like that. And it just happened. What can you do? But it is playing tough out there. Wind is very gusty.”

Lee, 25, had a breakthrough year in 2015, winning his first PGA Tour event at the Greenbrier Classic, tying for second at the Tour Championship and making his first Presidents Cup team. He had more top 10 finishes on the tour (eight) than McIlroy.

Lee has a global background. He was born in South Korea, where his mother once taught the game, and then moved to New Zealand as a boy to develop his talent. Now based in the United States, he continues to represent New Zealand where, despite Lee’s recent success, he is not the nation’s most prominent young golfer.

That is Lydia Ko, the 18-year-old who has been a dominant force in women’s golf. She recently won her second major and made an appearance at the Masters this week.

“Whatever she’s doing, I want to learn how she does it,” Lee told The New Zealand Herald.

Day could not recover from playing poorly on his closing holes Thursday. He began Friday at even par and bogeyed his first hole. He reached 2-under by the turn, but fell back to 1-over by the end of his round.

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