McIlroy remains in control

McIlroy remains in control
 Rory McIlroy gives a little first pump of satisfaction after his par save at the seventh. 

Rory McIlroy gives a little first pump of satisfaction after his par save at the seventh. 

Patience might be a virtue and good putting a must, but Rory McIlroy pointed to distance control as the key to his move into contention for the Masters and the chance to become the first European to complete the career Grand Slam.

The Co Down man (28) goes into the weekend on four-under-par, just five shots behind Patrick Reed after carding a 71 that might have been a 73 or 74 in another life.

There was a time when firm, fast and blustery conditions at Augusta National might have tried the patience of the pride of Holywood Golf Club.

But using the free-flowing putting stroke he honed with Brad Faxon at the Bear's Club just three weeks ago, he made two 30 footers for birdie in a four-birdie round and, crucially, five par putts of between five and seven feet.

"I think those two things have been a big key," he said of his comfort levels

"I think distance control has been a little bit better with either the firmness of the greens or the wind conditions.  So the distance control has been good. 

'But yeah, I've held putts that have kept momentum in the round going.  The par putt on seven today, the par putt on 10, the par putt on 11, those are huge putts.  

"They are bigger than some of the birdie putts because that just keeps you going and keeps you in the right frame of mind.  Those two parts of my game have been really good over the last couple days."

With Jordan Spieth carding a 74 to slip back to four-under, McIlroy was a little disappointed that he failed to convert birdie putts from around 12 feet on the last two holes.

But given how tough the course played for the morning starters, he was more than pleased that he remained patient.

Asked what advice he might have given his younger self if he were in the same position, he said: "Stay patient. Birdie the par 5s. Keep your putts on the high side of the hole. Hope for the best."

Reed — McIlroy's nemesis in the singles at the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine — made nine birdies in an impressive 66 to lead by two shots on nine-under-par from the Australian Marc Leishman (67) with Sweden's Henrik Stenson four behind on five-under after a 70.

McIlroy shares fourth place on four-under with Spieth but there are a host of top players within shouting distance of the leaders.

World No 1 Dustin Johnson shot 68 and US PGA champion Justin Thomas a 67 to share sixth in three-under, then come Tony Finau, Ricky Fowler and Louis Oosthuizen.

With Tiger Woods 13 shots behind on four-over after a 75, McIlroy has more majors than anyone else in contention and having won every major he's played when ranked in the top five after the first round, he expects to remain in the mix right to the end providing he can remain in the present and avoid thinking about what he might achieve.

"I think once you get yourself up there, you're playing well enough after day one that if you continue that good play, you should be up there for the rest of the tournament," said McIlroy, who will partner Stenson in the penultimate group on Saturday. 

"I've always felt comfortable being up around the lead.  It's a place that I'm thankfully quite familiar with and know how to deal with.

"I've always felt comfortable being up around the lead. It's a place that I'm thankfully quite familiar with and know how to deal with.

"I feel relaxed. I feel good. I'm constantly having a conversation with myself about staying in the present and just one shot at a time and all the cliche stuff that you hear about. But it's true."

 Henrik Stenson of Sweden walks onto the 13th green during the second round of the 2018 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 6, 2018 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Henrik Stenson of Sweden walks onto the 13th green during the second round of the 2018 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 6, 2018 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

He three-putted the first for bogey but made a 30 footer for birdie at the second and another after a big drive left a simple pitch at the third.

He went long at the fourth dropped a shot but saved par from five feet at the fifth and while he also overshot the par-three sixth and dropped another shot, he made par from seven feet at the seventh, seven feet at the 10th and eight feet at the 11th.

Those putts kept his momentum going and he quickly birdied the 13th and 14th before flying 25 yards long at the 15th after a subtle change of wind direction

" That's why it's so tricky because a lot of these holes run parallel to each other that should be just a straight‑across wind but if it goes a tiny bit this way or a tiny bit that way, it makes you look stupid," he said. "So small, small fractions make a big difference."

The forecast is for wind and rain on Saturday, which may give McIlroy a chance to open his shoulders and attack.

"It makes it all the more pleasing that I'm up there near the lead," he said. "Again, I said this yesterday; it's such a hard golf course to chase on.  You start to go for pins and you start chasing it, that's when you can bring in some trouble and make some mistakes. 

"Happy with the position I'm in, and whatever weather comes our way tomorrow, I feel like I'll be able to handle it and keep myself near the top of the leaderboard, and it's going to be an exciting weekend."

Patrick Reed

“I think the biggest highlight was getting off to the start I did. Hitting three‑wood off the first, it's a hole I've always loved to hit driver but I've always gotten myself in trouble for it.

“My wife always tells me it's a three‑wood, hit three‑wood. Finally I've listened to her. I've hit three‑wood both days, just played down the middle of the fairway, and that front left flag, it's such a hard flag to get close to.  I was able to kind of hit wedge just to the right of it and probably about 15, 18 feet.

“I think that was kind of the crucial point, to make a putt like that where it's double‑breaking and so speed sensitive, so I just kind of got my round started and just got that confidence and that step that I needed going into the day. Especially being last tee time off and seeing how the guys are struggling out there and not really a lot of low scores early, guys seemed to be making bogeys, one‑over, even, one‑under here and there.

“To be able to get a birdie out early, especially on the first and knowing you're going into a par five and that if you hit it into the fairway, you're going to have a chance to go for it in two, just allowed the day to start out on the right foot.

“Everyone wants to win, and if you don't believe you can win them, then you probably shouldn't be playing. I believe that if I play the golf that I know how to play, that I can win majors. And it’s just one of those things - I have to go in and not get ahead of myself and go into tomorrow and just take it shot by shot, hole‑by‑hole, like I've been doing.”

Marc Leishman

“I started off well with three birdies. On a day like today, when it's going to be tough, you sort of know you're going to have to take your chances when you get them, it just happened that I had them on the first three holes. That was great.

“And where I hit my drive on 15 was not ideal. But I practice that shot every week, curving it big both right‑to‑left and left‑to‑right, and it was one of those opportunities where it fit the shot and I thought it was a good time to give it a go. I did it, and it came off.

“I will say, I wasn't aiming quite as far left as where the ball went, but when you get a break like that and hit a good shot, you want to take advantage of it, and I did that by making the putt. It was nice to walk away from that hole with a three and be even on it for the week.”

Henrik Stenson

“It was fairly similar to yesterday, I think. I managed my way around this course in a good way, didn't make too many mistakes, even though I was a little frustrated with the way I hit the ball at times. I didn't feel like I brought the long game that I would like to have had out there. 

“I still kept it together and made some good par saves and some good putts. So all in all it’s a good score. It’s playing pretty vicious out there sometimes when that wind is swirling and I think for me the toughest stretch there was ten and 12.

“The wind was all over the place and you think it's into on 12 and I played a little eight‑iron and this thing is just like pumping downwind as soon as the ball's in the air - it landed up in the bushes behind and came back into the bunker. So when you got those things playing alongside, it's pretty hard at times. But I'm still happy with the way I finished and kept it together.”

Rory McIlroy

“My game feels okay. I played really well on the back nine, especially I made three really good pars on ten, 11 and 12 and then I had chances all the way in. I'm a little frustrated that I'm not in the clubhouse at say, six or seven under, I missed two really good chances coming in. It was a tricky day. Anything under par was pretty good but I feel like I left a couple out there.

“The wind is maybe five miles an hour more than it was yesterday but it's just enough to make it very tricky. I thought the pin positions today were a little tougher than they were yesterday so it was tough to get it close to some of the holes, especially on the tougher holes. You've got to stay patient around here.

“If you can not give any shots away with your short-range putting from inside six-feet - and there are some six-footers out here that you have to give it two feet of break - so they are pretty difficult. If you hole some 15 or 20-footers that's a bonus.”

Justin Rose

“I'm pleased with it today. I saw some signs of better putting. I think today I made some really good putts, I felt more comfortable on the greens. I freed up my stroke a little bit, that was good.

“I still made a couple of mistakes here and there, but it was kind of where it was tough not to make mistakes. It was fairly breezy out there. It was fairly low humidity throughout the day. The greens got pretty crusty, so it’s still not going to be easy for the leaders later.

“But it was a good round, it kind of kept me in the hunt. I felt like it would be a good, positive day. I started the day six back, and if I'm less than six back at the end of this, then I think it's a good, positive day.”

Masters Tournament, Augusta National GC (Par 72)

Detailed scores / Tee times

135 P Reed (USA) 69 66, 

137 M Leishman (Aus) 70 67, 

139 H Stenson (Swe) 69 70, 

140 J Spieth (USA) 66 74, R McIlroy (Nir) 69 71, 

141 D Johnson (USA) 73 68, J Thomas (USA) 74 67, 

142 B Watson (USA) 73 69, C Hoffman (USA) 69 73, T Finau (USA) 68 74, R Fowler (USA) 70 72, J Rose (Eng) 72 70, L Oosthuizen (RSA) 71 71, 

143 B Wiesberger (Aut) 70 73, J Rahm (Esp) 75 68, M Kuchar (USA) 68 75, C Smith (Aus) 71 72, 

144 T Fleetwood (Eng) 72 72, H Matsuyama (Jpn) 73 71, Z Johnson (USA) 70 74, J Walker (USA) 73 71, A Hadwin (Can) 69 75, 

145 V Singh (Fij) 71 74, R Cabrera Bello (Esp) 69 76, H Li (Chn) 69 76, R Henley (USA) 73 72, S Kodaira (Jpn) 71 74, 

146 J Vegas (Ven) 77 69, B Grace (RSA) 73 73, R Moore (USA) 74 72, F Couples (USA) 72 74, K Stanley (USA) 72 74, J Day (Aus) 75 71, F Molinari (Ita) 72 74, 

147 M Kaymer (Ger) 74 73, D Berger (USA) 73 74, C Reavie (USA) 76 71, B Harman (USA) 73 74, K Kisner (USA) 72 75, 

148 T Woods (USA) 73 75, B Dechambeau (USA) 74 74, A Scott (Aus) 75 73, S Kim (Kor) 75 73, B Langer (Ger) 74 74, D Ghim (am) (USA) 72 76, 

149 P Mickelson (USA) 70 79, T Hatton (Eng) 74 75, K Aphibarnrat (Tha) 79 70, X Schauffele (USA) 71 78, P Casey (Eng) 74 75, W Simpson (USA) 76 73, M Fitzpatrick (Eng) 75 74, I Poulter (Eng) 74 75,

CUT

150 J Dufner (USA) 73 77, S Lyle (Sco) 74 76, J Olazábal (Esp) 74 76, C Schwartzel (RSA) 72 78, 

151 B Steele (USA) 76 75, T Pieters (Bel) 73 78, D Frittelli (RSA) 77 74, S Sharma (Ind) 77 74, P Cantlay (USA) 75 76, D Willett (Eng) 75 76, T Potter Jnr (USA) 73 78, 

152 P Perez (USA) 73 79, W Bryan (USA) 74 78, P Kizzire (USA) 76 76, R Fisher (Eng) 78 74, 

153 K Chappell (USA) 77 76, A Noren (Swe) 74 79, T Immelman (RSA) 78 75, Y Ikeda (Jpn) 76 77, J Niemann (am) (Chi) 76 77, D Redman (am) (USA) 76 77, 

154 Y Miyazato (Jpn) 77 77, G Woodland (USA) 78 76, A Cook (USA) 74 80, 

155 B Horschel (USA) 76 79, I Woosnam (Wal) 79 76, M Weir (Can) 76 79, 

156 L Mize (USA) 76 80, 

159 A Cabrera (Arg) 76 83, M O'Meara (USA) 78 81, S Garcia (Esp) 81 78, Y Lin (am) (Chn) 79 80, 

160 M Parziale (am) (USA) 81 79, 

166 H Ellis (am) (Eng) 86 80