A long-awaited showdown has arrived.
Jordan Spieth came back to the field Friday with a two over 74, while Rory McIlroy played to his strengths to share low-round of the day, a 71 – four shots better than the field average. McIlroy once trailed Spieth by as many as eight shots Friday afternoon, but enters Saturday down just one.
McIlroy has reminded us why many consider him the most talented golfer in the world. He’s one of the leaders in driving distance – no big surprise — gaining over 20 yards per drive on the field.
But he’s also been in control, hitting 21 of 28 fairways and only getting himself into trouble off the tee twice (a bogey at the 11th Thursday and a par save on 18 Friday). That power has allowed him to go for seven of eight par 5s in two shots and score a field best 7-under on those holes.
Until 2015 McIlroy had struggled to convert that high draw and immense power into the eagles and birdies. He actually lost strokes to the field on par 5s in his first six trips to Augusta National (see chart). He finally figured it out last year while shooting 14-under on the par 5s to fuel a 4th place finish. This year, he’s halfway to that mark under tougher scoring conditions.
McIlroy’s second round could have been even better if not for a few hiccups, including a three-putt double bogey on the par 3 fourth hole. Birdies at the reachable par-5 13th and 15th and a 40 foot bomb on the par-3 16th rescued his round and set-up a Saturday pairing with the defending champ.
This weekend McIlroy will need to continue to play to his strengths. Jordan Spieth slipped back to the pack today down the stretch, creating one of the most bunched leaderboards in recent Masters. Through 36 holes Spieth has gained only 9.1 strokes on the field – the third lowest total for a second-round leader since 1996 and seven shots less than Spieth’s edge at this point last year.
Even with that bunched leaderboard, Spieth and McIlroy enter the weekend as significant favorites. (Betting odds give the two equal shares of around 60% probability of donning the green jacket on Sunday.) To get there they’ll both need to rely on their strengths – precision and putting for Spieth, power for McIlroy – to navigate two more tricky days.