McIlroy facing Augusta chess match

On a day when Rory McIlroy shot a 71 that could have been several shots better, Darren Clarke posted a 74 and backed brains to beat brawn to the green jacket at the Masters.

After battling to a two over 74 despite another massive struggle on the greens, the 2011 Open champion reckons hard and fast conditions at Augusta National will reward the smartest man in the field.

Frustrated with his putting after playing well from tee to green on a day when Bill Haas shot a 68 to lead by one from defending champion Adam Scott, 2012 winner Bubba Watson and former Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, Clarke said: "Whoever plays it the most intelligently is going to win this.

"With Augusta firming up the way it is, the winner is going to be someone who plays very smart.

"There are all types of guys up there on the leaderboard and anyone who makes the cut is not going to be far away — if he uses his head."

Will that man be Rory McIlroy? The favourite is certainly bracing himself for a "chess match" with Augusta after he three-putted three times en route to a 71 that could easily have been 68 or 67 so well did he hit the ball in general.

The young Ulsterman drove the ball sensationally well for most of the day but faltered on the greens by taking 34 putts — a statistic that left him near the back of the field alongside the likes of Ian Woosnam and Craig Stadler.

"I think it brings the guys that don't hit it as far into the mix a little bit more because it's not just about power then, it's about precision," McIlroy said of the conditions on a day when just  19 payers broke par and only four dipped under 70. 

The field is so bunched that the top 26 players are covered by just four shots.

"It's about putting your ball in the right place and it becomes more of a mental challenge than anything else, just playing to your spots," said McIlroy, who birdied the third and fifth and the two par-fives on the back nine but three putted for bogey at the eight (from the back fringe), the par-three 12th and again at the 18th. 

"It almost becomes like chess, where you're just making these moves," added McIlroy, who ran birdie putts past the hole at the 12th and 18th. "That hasn't been my forte in the past, but I'll learn to love it this week."

Clarke was always battling after a cruel lip-out from just over two feet at the first put him on the back foot straight away.

Just over the back of the green in two, he thrilled the massive crowds with a sensational, cut up flop shot that came down like a feather less than a yard from the hole.

But typical of his form on the greens since he won his first major, he hit his par-saver too hard and spun out.

Bogeys at the fifth and seventh saw him turn in 39 and brought back memories of last year’s final round when he crashed to an 81.

But while he did well to come home in 35 with bogeys at the 11th and 12th cancelled out by birdies at the 10th, 13th and 15th, his putting continues to be a worry.

Shaking his head, Clarke said: "It was tough to score but made nothing out there apart from an eight footer for par on the third.

"I missed it from about two-foot at the first and three-putted the second for a par five after hitting two lovely shot onto the green.

"You just can't compete doing that, especially on a course as tough as this.

"I gave myself lots of chances but I only missed two shots all day so I actually played quite nicely.

"Yes, I can make the cut and there's a chance for anyone who is in the top 50 and ties but it's never easy around here because the course is so good and so difficult."

The Dungannon ace had 31 putts including two three-putts and had it not been for his short game, he could easily have left himself with little chance of making the cut for only the second time in four starts since 2006.

He said: "There is rarely a big gap between the leaders and the guys who just make the weekend.

"First and foremost I have got to go out and play well again tomorrow and see where that leaves me.

"They can control where they put the pins but the greens are only going to get firmer all the time and that's going to suit someone who plays with their head."