AUGUSTA — Here’s what the Masters weekend looks like to you: Jordan Spieth versus Rory McIlroy.
Here’s what the Masters weekend really looks like: David versus Godzilla, with Augusta National Golf Club playing the role of Godzilla and the 57 golfers who made the cut playing David.
Gusting, swirling winds that made greens firmer and crusty turned Friday’s second round into a last-man-standing contest. Only three players—McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Troy Merritt—broke par, and they could do no better than a one-under 71. Playing with Spieth, U.S. Amateur champion Bryson DeChambeau was three under and working on the low round of the day when he stepped to the 18th tee. Then he yanked two tee shots, signed for a triple-bogey 7 and slid back to even par.
Spieth, the defending champion, played bogey-free golf during an opening-round 66. Friday, however was a different story. He survived four bogeys and a double bogey but holed a 14-foot par putt on the final green to hang onto a lead that was once as big as five. By day’s end, he was a single stroke ahead of McIlroy and two ahead of Danny Lee, Scott Piercy and Brandt Snedeker.
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“It was a really difficult day to score,” said Spieth, who has now held the Masters lead for six consecutive rounds, tying the record held by Arnold Palmer. “We were trying to adjust to ever-changing winds. This has now gone to a very U.S. open style of play.”
His finish looked Open-like, all right. Spieth staggered home with bogeys at 16 and 17 and after short-siding himself in a greenside bunker at 18, he holed the par putt to keep the lead. He posted a two-over-par 74, marking the first time in 10 career rounds at Augusta National that he failed to shoot par or better. And yet he still holds the lead as he bids to become the fourth player to win the Masters in consecutive years.
The way his afternoon started, it looked as if Spieth would go low again. On the heels of last year’s runaway victory, he promptly birdied two of his first three holes in the second round, and you could almost hear the other contenders thinking, Here we go again!
When U.S Ryder Cup captain Davis Love finished his second straight round of 73, he was asked about Spieth, who was at eight under par at the time. “He’s unbelievable,” Love said. “He’s not making people happy with the 10-shot rule when you’re in the locker room trying to figure out where the cut is going to be. I could see somebody shooting two or three under each day but obviously, he’s got something special going here.”
Then, gusting winds that only strengthened during the afternoon interrupted Spieth’s apparent parade to the title. The trouble started with he four-putted the 5th. He got a shot back with a birdie at the par-5 8th, only to follow with consecutive bogeys. He got back to even par for the day with a two-putt birdie at the par-5 15th, but he three-putt the next and bogeyed the 17th after his approach shot sailed over the green.
Playing almost two hours ahead of Spieth, McIlroy clawed his way to second place. He birdied the 2nd and 3rd holes, but then racked up a double at the par-3 4th, a bogey at the 5th and another bogey at the 11th before birdies on the back nine par-5s and the par-3 16th moved him up the leader board. He also may a superb par out of the right trees at the 18th, threading a punched 4-iron through a real or imagined gap, and then getting up and down for his 4.
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“You just have to look at the scores today to see how tough it was,” said McIlroy, who needs a Masters title to complete the career Grand Slam. “I’m very happy. Anything under par with these conditions was good.”
As for any former World No. 1 versus former World No. 1 talk, McIlroy wasn’t interested. “It would add a lot of excitement and buzz to the tournament, obviously,” he said. “I’ve said from the start, I’m concentrating on myself. I’ve only got the mental capacity to focus on me. You can’t ignore the scoreboard. At one point, I was seven or eight back. Jordan got off to a fast start, but the conditions are so tough, it’s going to even out.”
The Saturday forecast is calling for even stronger winds.
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“There are a lot of players within five or six of the lead who can have a great weekend and contend,” said McIlroy. “It’s only the second day. It’s just nice to be up there going into the weekend instead of battling back from the cut line like I have the last couple of years.”
Pins on Friday were difficult, and the winds gusted upwards of 25 mph, which is plenty strong with greens this treacherous. How tough was it? Only seven players are under par through 36 holes. Last year, 28 players were under par at the halfway point, led by Spieth at 14 under.
For a second straight day, a player produced a record score on a hole. On Thursday, Ernie Els six-putted the 1st hole for a 9, beating the mark of 8. On Friday, Branden Grace looked like a bowler with a ball return at the par-3 6th when a couple of chips rolled back down a slope to his feet. He made a quadruple-bogey 7, tying a mark set by Jose Maria Olazabal in 1991 and matched by Arnold Palmer in 1997.
Els rallied from his “heebie-jeebies” putting woes to shoot 73 after a Thursday 80, a game showing considering his putting struggles.
“After what I did yesterday, you feel quite embarrassed,” Els admitted. “It was a very weird, surreal feeling this morning, it was like I walked onto the range and the players and caddies looked at me as if I didn’t have pants on or something. It was not a nice feeling. But they had a good reason to look at me funny after what happened yesterday.
“Working on something new backfired on me, and I’ll go back to what I had been doing. If I feel anxious like that again—maybe I felt like that because my brain is telling me this is not normal, it just went haywire.
“Last night, the whole household was in shock. We weren’t saying much, I had my dinner and watched the NBA game, Miami against Chicago. Just kind of shell-shocked. I slept O.K. And then this morning, I felt very weird when I got to the course. It was kind of funny.”
Big names and lesser names struggled alike.
Jason Day, the other member of the so-called Big Three, struggled for the second straight day on the back nine. Two under at the turn, Day came home in 39 and posted a 73 to finish at one over par. That came a day after he shot 41 on the back nine.
“It almost feels like we’re just trying to survive out there,” said Day, the world’s top-ranked player. “It feels like a U.S. Open. There aren’t too many times when I stand on a golf course and have to aim a putt for the wind, which tells you how gusty it is in some parts of the course.”
Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson shot a second consecutive 75 and made the cut on the number, at six over. “It was very disappointing,” Watson said. “The golf course beat me this year. I’ve got to wait a year to attack it again.”
Ian Woosnam, the 1991 Masters winner, didn’t break 80 in either round and said that at 58, this was his final Masters.
And in his final Masters appearance, 66-year-old Tom Watson came up short in his quest to become the oldest player to make the cut at Augusta National. He followed his opening 74 with 78. Tommy Aaron, who was 63 in 2000 when he made the cut, hangs onto his place in the record book.
Now Spieth and McIlroy will try to write their own names into the Masters record book.