AUGUSTA, GA -- The Rory McIlroy Love Train is rolling all over Augusta National. America simply loves Rory. The romance that began with a hug after his Sunday 80 at the Masters last year, and blossomed with his victory at the U.S. Open, is now a full-on love affair.
During Friday’s second round, Rory took thousands of patrons with him on his morning hike around Augusta’s hills and valleys. He shot a three-under-par 69 to get to four under for the tournament. He is poised to be measured for that first green jacket.
“I know I’m playing well,” McIlroy said. “I just wanted to come here and put myself in position to win another major.”
Mission accomplished. “I’m not in a position to win yet, but we’ll see what happens. It will definitely be nice to feel like I’m in a good position going into Sunday.”
Going into Friday, McIlroy still had pictures in his head of Thursday. Good pictures: his birdie, birdie finish. Bad picture: his double bogey at the first in the first round. No such problems the second time around at the opening hole.
Booming drive, approach shot that pitched four feet from the hole but spun back and down to the lower tier. No need for tears. Two putts. Par. Back-to-back birdies at the third and fourth got McIlroy’s name onto the leaderboards for the first time. It stayed there.
“I grew up watching this tournament on TV, and it’s like this sacred ground,” McIlroy said. “The first time you get here you’re scared of taking a divot out of the fairway, but now it’s a great honor to come back here and play.”
McIlroy is primed to make his own divot in the history of this tournament. What a story it will be if he can turn humiliation into a coronation in just 12 months.
“I’ve been in this position before,” he said. “I’ve come back here a major champion, and I’ve come back here with a lot more experience than I had this time last year, and you think all that just sort of makes a difference.”
By the time McIlroy and his playing partners Bubba Watson and Angel Cabrera reached the bottleneck by the third green and fourth tee, finding a spot to witness the Boy Wonder required jostling worthy of the subway at Grand Central during rush hour. Except there wouldn’t be another Rory coming along in five minutes. This was the last chance for many fans to glimpse their hero on this hallowed turf. Uber-athletic basketball types towered above the scene like giraffes and saw everything. Normal people saw the backs of heads and shoulders of other normal people and the top of McIlroy’s club as it swished back and followed through. Children saw chino-colored backsides. Still, they can all tell their pals: “I was there. I saw Rory at the Masters.”
Rory bounced along the third fairway in that Tigger way of his and then flipped his wedge shot straight at the flag. It pitched on the green pin high but took a vicious kick left, coming to rest 15 feet away. He walked after it looking more like Eeyore, blowing out his cheeks in frustration. But he at least had an uphill putt. Gone is the twitchy, over-complicated putting routine. He now simply decides on his line and sends the ball on its way without a single practice stroke. Birdie. Whoops and hollers from behind the ropes. A smile and a tip of the hat from Rory.
The train rumbled on to the fourth and then came to a grinding halt. The group in front -- Sergio Garcia, KJ Choi and David Toms -- were backed up in a holding pattern worse than JFK’s. It wasn’t their fault. The general pace of play was pathetic. One hour to play three holes. Garcia had time to grow a beard. This is supposed to be a compelling sport watched by tens of thousands at Augusta and millions around the world on TV. At times it was more like a still life exhibition. If it gets any slower, forget putting players on the clock; officials will need a calendar.
But the levels of concentration from McIlroy and his peers are extraordinary. They can hit awe-inspiring shots, switch off and then be ready to switch back on in seconds. It’s nothing short of genius. Up on the fourth green, McIlroy eased in another long birdie putt. His stroke really has become as smooth as chocolate milk.
“Here we go, baby. Here he comes,” came a yell from behind the 18th green. McIlroy has joined Woods and Phil Mickelson to be honored with ‘He’ status.
McIlroy praised the support he is getting at Augusta. “I certainly don’t feel like a foreigner,” he said. “It’s really nice to hear and see them all supporting me.”