He’s mature beyond his years, a world class golfer and a Masters champion in waiting. Jordan Spieth? No, Rory McIlroy, who must face up to the fact that he has a problem getting his mindset right at Augusta National.
Once Spieth had added a six under 66 to his opening 64 to lead with a 36-hole record 130, McIlroy arrived at the course 13 strokes off the pace.
If only a bogey at the first, where he bunkered his tee shot, had been been the worst of it on the front nine.
Playing distracted, almost careless golf for a man chasing a career Grand Slam, McIlroy shot 40 for nine holes for the second successive Friday at the Masters.
That he came home in 31 for his second 71 on the trot and trails Spieth by “just” 12 shots on two under par was good for his psyche in the short term, if nothing else.
As for the pressure of trying to complete the career Grand Slam at the age of 25, McIlroy said it had nothing to do with such a stuttering start. But if that wasn’t the problem, what was?
“I couldn’t get anything going,” the world No 1 said. “I hit a good shot into five but misjudged the wind and it went over the back. Then to bogey seven and not birdie eight and take four to get down from the back of the green nine…”
If he was going to analyse it, it wasn’t going to be public.
“I was just trying to get myself back to even par for the tournament on that back nine and thankfully I did a couple better,” he went on. “But it is just not good enough on the front nine, unfortunately, but I salvaged something from the day at least.”
McIlroy was four over for the day, three over the tour tournament and 17 shots off the lead with nine holes to play but birdied the 10th, saved par at the 12th and eagle the 13th with a six iron to three feet.
That he three putted the 14th, missing a three footer, was almost unforgiveable. But he hit back with a two-putted birdie at the 15th, chipped in from around 25 feet off the back of the 17th for birdie and then hit a great approach to nine feet to set up a three at the last said a lot about his talent, if nothing else.
Was it professional pride?
“At that point you are not even looking at the leader, just trying to set yourself a target and that’s what I tried to do and I got myself back to even for the tournament and it was nice to finish with two birdies on the way in to shoot under par somehow today and at least it makes me feel a bit better going into the weekend.”
Nobody knows better than McIlroy how Augusta National can jump up and bite player at the weekend but he fears that Spieth is too tough a cookie, having learned the lessons of last year, when he led the Masters heading into the back nine but lost out to an inspired Bubba Watson.
“There’s always a possibility but Jordan looks like he is not going to let up and when I was in that sort of position it was my first time and my first experience. Jordan has had that experience last year and is a much more well rounded player than I was when I had a chance here at 21. It is going to be a tough ask for anyone to overhaul Jordan and it is great to see and he has been playing well for a while and it will be interesting to see how he does over the weekend.”
Asked later about Spieth’s performance, which saw him follow his opening 64 with an immaculate 66 to lead by five shots from Charley Hoffman on 14 under, he said: ‘It’s really, really impressive. I think a few guys can still catch him. It will take, obviously, something extraordinary from myself to get up there, but you never know. I know better than most people what can happen with the lead around here.
“But Jordan's had the experience. He had the experience last year. He had a couple shot lead and couldn't quite hold on to it. But he'll have learned from that and he'll definitely handle it better this time around.”
McIlroy appeared liberated by the pressure when he went out in 40. Why?
”You know, I don't know. Just, again, here, it's such a fine line. The margin for error is so small. Missing it in the wrong places sometimes and I missed a couple of really short putts back there, and that affected my confidence a little bit. But there's a few things like that. But the good golf is in there. It's just a matter of trying to get rid of the bad stuff, which was all on the front nine today.”
Was it the career Grand Slam factor?
“Not a factor at all, to be honest. No. I know, any of the bad golf, the bad shots I hit out there the last couple of days, I can't put that down to what it would mean or what I was playing for. I'm just trying to go out there and play the best golf I possibly can and that's about it…
“Even though it was an up‑and‑down round, I finished on a high note and at least make myself feel a little bit better going into the weekend.”
Could McIlroy still contend? It’s not impossible but it would require help, not just from Spieth, but from a host of others.
“You know, really, I would need to shoot a 14‑under par weekend and Jordan would have to play a couple average rounds, and neither of those two things look like they're going to happen, so it's going to be tough.
“I'll go out and try and play the best that I can and we'll see where that leaves me. But, a few more nine holes like the one I just had there, you never know.”