Rory McIlroy does not light incense, meditate or begin speaking in tongues when he travels to Augusta National every April, although nobody would’ve blamed him if that, or electroshock therapy, became his practice after 2011.
Some careers are defined by greatness. McIlroy’s is defined by extremes.
He has banked both the greatness of four major championships and the memory of exploding clown shoes in the 2011 Masters. He led after the first, second and third rounds, only to melt down on Sunday’s back nine with a Vaudeville-like, triple-bogey on the 10th hole, his ball landing somewhere near club cottages, and words were overheard, “Thurston, there’s a golf ball in my soup.” The tournament-blowing 80 lives in Augusta infamy.
Seven years later, McIlroy is less prone to chaos. Whether he can fully make amends for that day with a new Masters reference point this year will be determined over the next 36 holes, but Friday’s second round was a study in needed calm.
On a day when two of the sports’ icons, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, played footsy with the cut line, McIlroy chose not to arm-wrestle with Augusta National. After recording three bogeys, with two birdies, on the first six holes, he embraced caution and conservatism on every hole, played the next 12 holes bogey-free with 10 pars and two birdies and happily finished the second round with a 2 under for the day and 4 under for the tournament.
He’s tied for fourth place and within range of winning his first Masters, five back of Patrick Reed. He’s displaying his new-found ability to process setbacks without spontaneously combusting.
Imagine duct-taping the Tazmanian Devil to a lamp post and brainwashing him into believing he’s now a 17-year-old house cat. That’s where McIlroy is now.
“I feel relaxed. I feel good. I'm constantly having a conversation with myself about staying in the present, just one shot at a time and all the cliché stuff that you hear about,” he said.
Has he learned? Because nobody has ever doubted McIlroy’s talent, and he has been one of the tour’s top players for seven years, his just-not-quite-there history in Augusta notwithstanding.
After a bogey on No. 6 and weary of battling alternating breezes and fast, dangerous greens, McIlroy turned to his caddie, Harry Diamond, and decided to surrender to the course.
“I said to Harry, ‘Let's just try and hit fairways and greens here, and if we do that, we're going to be OK,’” he said.
This emotional U-turn countered every aggressive, go-for-it bone in his little Irish body, but it worked. McIlroy has learned patience is not a coward’s way out.
“I think just with the amount of times that I've been in contention or around the lead, whether it be a regular event or a major, every experience you have, you learn a little bit,” he said. “I know I don’t have to go out there and make a birdie on every hole, especially not on this golf course and in these conditions.
“Sometimes, pars might be a little bit boring and you might feel you want to give it more of a run. But you look up at the leaderboard and you’re still there.”
A light-bulb moment.
“That’s taken a while for me to adjust to. When I first came out here on tour, I thought all these guys birdied every hole and you have to hit unbelievable shot after unbelievable shot. But it’s not like that. Golf’s a game of making your misses not that bad.”
That was reaffirmed by others. Ask Mickelson. He started the week among the tournament favorites and was 2 under after the first round. But he shot a 79 that included a triple bogey on No. 9. (Recap: tee shot into the woods; iron off a tree; ricochet into azaleas; drop and second attempt at face-saving with shot into fairway; chip onto green and then a roll off it.)
Mickelson was 7 over for the day, Woods 3 over, Garcia 6 over (and 15-plus for the tournament). Those three have eight green jackets between them. McIlroy is looking for his first Masters after wins in the U.S. Open, British and PGA (twice). It would give him a career Grand Slam.
Rain and wind could make a mess of the third round.
“It makes it all the more pleasing that I’m up there,” McIlroy said. “It’s such a hard golf course to chase on. You start to go for pins and you start chasing it, that’s when it can bring you some trouble and you start to make mistakes.”
He talks about winning without “swinging my best.”
He talks like Zig Ziglar giving marching orders to a group of salesmen: “If I can think the way I'm thinking right now and stay in that mindset, that's when I've been able to produce my best results.”
Rory McIlroy: mind over matter. This will take some getting used to.
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