A 54-hole display of excellence by Rory McIlroy was followed by a final round collapse that paved the way for one of the most exciting finishes in Masters history.
But as much for his achievements, young Rory McIlroy’s year would be remembered for a couple of Major disappointments. At St Andrews, he led The Open after a course record-equalling 63 in round one. He was unable to deal with strong winds in round two and fell away with an 80. Although he fought back to take third, it was an opportunity missed.
At the USPGA at Whistling Straits, he was tied for the lead until a three-put on the 15th. He missed a birdie putt on the final green to join Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson in a playoff.
For 2011, McIlroy’s focus was on making that Major breakthrough and by the time The Masters came around, the Northern Irishman was among the favourites.
Other likely candidates included: defending champion Phil Mickelson (a winner the previous week in Texas,) World Number 2 Lee Westwood, who had been runner-up in 2010, Accenture Match Play champion Luke Donald, Paul Casey, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and, of course, Tiger Woods. The four-time Masters winner had patchy form owing to recent swing changes, but he could never be ruled out at Augusta.
Also on superb form, but flying under the radar of most U.S. golf fans, was Charl Schwartzel. The South African didn’t have a top-10 finish to his name on the 2011 PGA Tour, but his first five results on the 2011 European Tour had been: T2, 4, T4, 1 and T8. He was clearly playing well.
Playing rounds one and two in a group designed to showcase the future of professional golf, Rory McIlroy was paired with Jason Day and Rickie Fowler. It was the Northern Irishman whose performance stood out on day one. McIlroy cruised round Augusta in a 7-under-par 65.
“He’s very consistent and you can see how confident he is on course,” said playing partner Day.
It could easily have been better for McIlroy. He was impeccable from tee to green but three-putted the par-5 13th for a par and missed a number of makeable birdie putts, including a six-footer on the last. That said, McIlroy was very obviously pleased with his opening card.
“I would take 65 all day long,” he said.
McIlroy inevitably faced questions though about what had happened the last time he’d held a 1st round Major lead.
“I hope it will help me,” he said. “I have that experience to draw from. I feel I’m better prepared.”
Rory swing sequence video:
But a look at past history would not have encouraged the youngster. In 74 previous instalments of The Masters, the first round leader had gone on to win just 14 times.
Y.E. Yang tied McIlroy at the top on day one after making a birdie at the 16th, but two closing bogeys saw him fall back. One shot further behind, Americans Ricky Barnes and Matt Kuchar were tied on four-under.
Sergio Garcia made a welcome return to the first page of a Major leaderboard, carding a three-under-par 69. That score was matched by England’s Ross Fisher who was in the first group out on Thursday morning.
Tiger Woods carded a 71 and was by no means out of it. But it was a disappointing day for some European hopefuls. World Number 1 Martin Kaymer, never at his best round Augusta, limped home with a six-over-par 78. Padraig Harrington managed only one better. Francesco Molinari posted 75 while Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell finished with 74s.
Last out, Alvaro Quiros birdied the last to match Rory’s 65. This was Quiros’ third Masters and he’d missed two cuts previously. But he’d been on great form in 2011. He’d won the Dubai Desert Classic two months previously and been second in the Qatar Masters. Still, most were surprised to see Quiros so high on the board. He’d even surprised himself.
“Normally I’m watching this situation on the TV, sitting on my sofa,” he said.
At the end of day one, on the 50th anniversary of the first international champion, Gary Player in 1961, the leaderboard had a distinctly international feel. Nine players from outside the USA featured in the top-10 and ties.
McIlroy maintained his lead after round two and, again, it was a day that could have been even better for the Northern Irishman. He finished with a 69 for a 36-hole total of 10-under, two ahead of Jason Day. But he let a few shots get away on the run in. He missed a 10-foot putt for eagle on the 13th then, at the 15th, failed to get up and down after reaching the back edge in two. He then missed short birdie chances on both the 17th and 18th holes.
The challengers were amassing behind McIlroy. Jason Day raced into contention with a 64 while Tiger Woods roared up the board with a 66. Englishmen, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Ross Fisher were all within striking distance.
One of the stories of the day was the excellent 68 scored by 51-year-old Fred Couples. It left the 1992 champion on a two round total of five-under-par, just five shots back.
After round two, only one amateur was left standing: Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama. He’d won the Asia Pacific Amateur championship the previous October and would go on to win it again in 2011. As a professional, Matsuyama has twice finished in the top-10 at Augusta.