McIlroy and Lowry tough it out amid Augusta mayhem

McIlroy and Lowry tough it out amid Augusta mayhem
 Augusta National

Augusta National

A few years ago he might have imploded in frustration but Rory McIlroy refused to give up and produced a sensational back nine comeback to keep his Masters dream alive with a gritty 72 at windy Augusta.

As Shane Lowry also carded a 72 that looked like being a couple better at one stage, the Irish duo were thrilled to surive a day on attrition that ended with Charley Hoffman three clear of William McGirt after an otherworldly 65 in a westerly wind that gusted up 30 mph.

If McIlroy goes on to win win on Sunday and complete the career Grand Slam, he will look back on his homeward nine of three-under-par 33 as the key, so clutch was his short game and putting.

"I have put a lot of hours in on the putting green over the last few months, specifically on putts inside 10 feet," said McIlroy who single putted seven times coming home with par saves at the 10th, 11th and 12th the key to his day.

The world No 2 looked to be heading for another Masters disaster when he slumped to three over 39 through the turn.

But he produced three superb par saves in the trot at the 10th, 11th and 12th, then got a little help from golfing gods at the 13th and made the first of three birdies in four holes.

"My short game really saved me today - 10, 11 and 12 were huge," he said. "To get those three up and down - not that I had much momentum - but to at least have something going into that stretch where I could pick up a couple. 

"Thankfully I was able to birdie the two par fives and another one coming in. Even par was a great score at the end of the day and I am really happy with it."

The 13th was a huge turning point for the Ulsterman, whose 200-yard approach stuck on the bank of the hazard and stayed up instead of toppling back into Rae's Creek. 

He then took advantage, chipping to six feet before rolling in the birdie putt.

He was soon back to just one over when he recovered from a hooked drive at the 15th and trickled home a slick 13-footer for another birdie before rifling his tee shot to four feet at the 16th and making yet another putt.

"For that ball to stay up and make birdie from it was a huge bonus as well," he said of the 13th. "I am not complaining. I did my best out there and I gritted it out."

After chipping to two feet to save par from the swale left of the 18th, he added: "I would have ripped somebody’s hand off for a 72 on the 10th tee and to feel somewhat disappointed because I had a good chance on 17 for birdie but I am really happy with that. It puts me in a good frame of mind for tomorrow."

He was far from happy after nine holes after yet another half of 39 at Augusta on a day when just 11 players broke par and Jordan Spieth had a nine at the 15th in a 75 that left him tied for 41st with 2013 champion Adam Scott.

Bunkered off the tee at the first, McIlroy bogeyed there and failed to take advantage of a massive, 347-yard drive at the par-five second, carding a par after bunkering his approach.

Another bogey at the third, where he three-putted from 25 feet, put him under massive pressure.

But he curled in an 11-footer for par after airmailing the fourth and then holed an 18 footer for his par at the seventh after hooking his drive into the trees and chipping up short of the green.

Under pressure to get a shot back on the par-five eighth, he walked off with a bogey six instead after bunkering his drive and overshooting the green with his third.

Out in three over — the fifth time he has shot 39 or worse on the front nine at Augusta — his Masters dream looked to be evaporating rapidly.

But he refused to fold.

Forced to make a 10 footer for par at the 10th, he then conjured up the save of the day after airmailing the 11th with a sensational pitch to three feet.

Minutes later he was fist pumping again when he flew the 12th but slotted home a seven footer for his three.

Then came those late heroics.

Asked if his younger self might have struggled to keep his cool and salvage a 72 in such conditions, he confessed: "I think so. I think short game wise and mentally, I’d have struggled with both those things to put together a back nine like that in previous years. 

"But I have done the work on the short game. I didn’t want to give up. I wanted to put the head down, show a bit of grit and determination and I was able to do that today."

The rib injury that kept McIlroy out of the game for six weeks in January and February appears to have paid off.

His short game was razor-sharp.

"Yeah, the silver lining," he said with a grin. "I have put a lot of hours in on the putting green with Phil Kenyon over the last few months, specifically on putts inside 10 feet." 

Lowry, 30, was superb from tee to green as he defied high winds for much of brutal opening day.

The Clara man had a rollercoaster front nine, making up for dropped shots at the first and third with a chip and putt birdie from off the back at the long second and another from the back fringe at the short fourth.

When he drilled in a 20 footer for birdie on the fifth, he was in the red but then pulled his tee shot at the par-three sixth and bogeyed.

Driving the ball brilliantly, he hit a majestic pitch to three feet set up his fourth birdie of the day at the eighth, then parred the ninth and 10th in regulation before getting up and down for par with another superb pitch at the 11th.

He showed his short game skills again at the 12th, coming up inches short of holing his bunker shot.

The big Offaly man was sublime with the driver too and while he just missed a 16 footer for eagle at the 13th after two majestic shots, he tapped-in for his birdie to get to within a shot of clubhouse leader William McGirt on two-under par.

Then came back to back three-putt bogeys at the 15th and 16th.

But last year's US Open runner-up was far from despondent despite those late mistakes.

"If you had given me [72] on the first tee I would have taken your hand off," Lowry said. "It was very tough out there. I played as good as I have played in a long time. 

"I am really happy with how I played, and while it was disappointing to bogey 15 and 16, I hit good shots on those two holes and got a gust of wind with my lay-up on 15 which left me too far back. Then I didn’t get the gust on 16 and I was probably two yards from having an eight-footer for birdie. 

"It was one of those days — it was so tough that you were happy withy every par and I am happy I made a few birdies. I am very happy with that. 

"I just need to go out tomorrow and keep doing what I am doing. I drove the ball great today, and my iron play was really solid. My chipping felt really good for the first time in a long time today. 

"That seven under from Charley Hoffman was probably one of the best scores you’ll ever see. The wind was gusting to 25-30 mph and it is hard to know when it is going to gust and when it is not. 

"I am good at doing that when I get on tough golf courses and today was no different."

Asked if he felt more comfortable in majors these days, Lowry agreed after watching Lee Westwood shoot 70 to sit alone in third with Sergio Garcia carding a 71 to share fourth with Jason Dufner, Matt Fitzpatrick, Russell Henley, Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose and Andy Sullivan.

He said: "I was out there playing with Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood and myself and Dermot were talking on the 13th green, saying it wasn’t long ago I was sitting at home watching those two play this tournament.   

"I feel like I am well able to be in that company. I showed that today. I am every bit as good as the two lads, so I am looking forward to the next two days, and hopefully I can make a few pars, a few birdies maybe, and keep the bogeys to a minimum."

Lowry knew before the start that playing a tough course in windy conditions was something that would suit him. 

"You sometimes feel hard done by out there," he said. "The 16th was playing 170 yards, and there is wind gusting out of the left and water left, and I hit the most beautiful seven iron and I go up there, and I have the hardest two-putt you can get. 

"It is one of those courses that is like that and when you throw this wind in there as well, it is even more difficult. 

"But I seem to be quite good at getting into a decent frame of mind on tough golf courses when it is tough conditions. 

"I think even Charley Hoffman would have taken 72 out there. It was extremely difficult. There were no holes where you could really make birdies. It was a case of trying to make a par on every hole, and if you gave yourself a chance of birdie, you tried to hole the putt. 

"I played some great golf today. I drove the ball lovely and my iron play was solid. So I am looking forward to the next few days. 

"I know how to play in the wind - there is a lot of feel golf involved. It is not a day for trying to hit perfect golf shots. It was just a day to try and get around the golf course, and that’s what I did today.

"My confidence is good, yes, but it’s early days yet. There are three rounds to go, and it is going to be as difficult tomorrow. 

"It’s going to be windy again and the weekend will be nicer. Hopefully, the scoring will be better then. I will go home and relax tonight and try and go out tomorrow and do well."

Lowry's ball-striking was key, and he is looking forward to more of the same in similar conditions on Friday.

"My ball striking needed to be good today," he said. "I hit a poor tee shot off the first, but after that, I was pretty flawless. I drove the ball good, and my iron play was as good as it has been in a while.

"I felt like I was able to hit it low into the wind and control my ball. I don’t think I was relishing it, but when I saw the draw the other day and saw the forecast, I knew that with Sergio and Lee being good ball strikers, I knew we were going to pull each other along today and that’s what we did. Hopefully, we will drag each other along tomorrow."

As for Hoffman's score, McIlroy could harder believe what he was seeing on the scoreboard as he finished.

Asked what he thought when he saw minus seven, McIlroy said: "Holy shit. It’s an incredible score. I though if anyone broke 70 today that would have been unbelievable. 

"To see what Charley did over the last six or seven holes was incredible. After my start, I am ecstatic with a 72, and he shot 65. 

"But as they say, they don’t give out green jackets on Thursdays, and there is no winning post there. I think I’m in a good position with three rounds to go and we will see how it goes. 

"It was the toughest I’ve ever seen out there. If the golf course had been firm that would have been really difficult. It’s definitely the longest it has played. There were a few holes I’ve never played that long. I don’t know if anyone got over the water on 15? 

"At least I’ve seen the golf course like this now. I’ve seen the wind out of this direction, and I’ll know what to expect tomorrow. I didn’t really know what to expect today. Now I’ve seen it once I think I’ll deal with it better."