AUGUSTA, Ga. — On the night before the first round of the Masters, Rory McIlroy was out front of his rented Augusta home, causing trouble. Well, not real trouble. He was tossing around a football with some friends when a neighbor came out front and wondered what the ruckus was.
The ruckus was McIlroy and his boys from Holywood, Northern Ireland, throwing spirals. “Thumb down, isn’t it?” said McIlroy, mimicking a forward pass motion like Aaron Rodgers. “I’m learning.”
If American football is a work-in-progress for McIlroy, major championship golf is quickly becoming old hat. Among the many Masters traditions—green jackets for the members, pimento cheese for the patrons, devilish greens for the players—is supposed to be the spectacle of inexperienced young golfers putting into bunkers and driving into the pine trees. Not Rory. In just his third Masters appearance and seventh competitive round at Augusta National, the 21-year-old McIlroy shot his best-ever round Thursday: seven birdies and no bogeys in an easy 7-under-par 65 that left him tied with Alvaro Quiros of Spain and two shots ahead of Y.E. Yang and K.J. Choi.
Last year at the Masters, McIlroy missed the cut. In 2009, he finished tied for 20th. Yes, McIlroy is learning.
“Augusta National, it takes years and years of figuring [it] out, and they make tiny little adjustments here and there, but I feel a lot more comfortable on the golf course this year than I did the previous couple of years,” McIlroy said. “It showed in the way I played.”
McIlroy’s 65 was the latest flourish in Europe’s golfing renaissance and, perhaps, a harbinger of the weekend ahead. A year ago, Europeans took home half of the major titles, with Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland winning the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and Germany’s Martin Kaymer winning the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. McIlroy might have given the continent a third major but for a wind-blown 80 in the second round of the British Open at St. Andrews, which was a humbling encore to his opening 63. He still finished tied for third.
“Looking back on it, it was a very valuable lesson in my development as a golfer,” McIlroy said. “If I do find myself in a bit of trouble, I’m going to have to stick in there, grind it out. Even though I didn’t do it on that Friday [at St. Andrews], I feel like shooting a score like , you should really never make that mistake again.”
At the Masters, McIlroy played inspired golf alongside fellow youngsters Rickie Fowler, who shot 70, and Jason Day, who carded a 72. McIlroy pounded his driver and unfurled gorgeous low-flying pitches that grabbed the green and spun. He saved par with a pitch on the first hole and stole two quick birdies with pitches on holes 2 and 3. Between shots, he chatted easily with Fowler and Day, mostly about cars and boats. “Anything but golf, really,” McIlroy said.
The group—combined age 67—played to a large gallery that appreciated its youthful energy. McIlroy wore sunglasses, occasionally on the back of his cap. The fashionable Fowler was dressed in green, head to toe.
This is the generation that has been threatening Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the duo that has combined for seven green jackets in the last 14 years.
One year after he was greeted at the Masters by an airplane trailing a banner mocking his personal scandals, Woods’s day was incident free. He shot a 71 that was typical of his rounds of late. Some loose shots, a handful of tidy ones, and a few too many missed putts. After a towering approach shot to 10 feet on the 18th hole, Woods watched his birdie effort slide past on the low side.
“I hit a lot of beautiful putts and they were just skirting the edge,” Woods said. “Hopefully they will start going in. I would rather be where Rory’s at, but, hey, it’s a long way to go. We have a long grind ahead of us. I’m sure they will start making the pins a little more difficult as the week goes on.”
Mickelson, the defending champion, opened with seven straight pars and shot 70, a score that he admitted was only okay on a day of low numbers. Just as in last year’s final round—when he made birdie from the pine straw right of the fairway—the par-5 13th hole defined his day. On Thursday, Mickelson drove into the bushes left of Rae’s Creek, punched out over the creek, and nearly rolled in a long birdie putt before settling for par. As the sun set over Augusta National, Mickelson was back on the range trying to straighten out his errant driver before Friday’s second round.
McIlroy needed none of Mickelson’s heroics to stake his claim atop the leaderboard, a position that is no surprise to those in the know. “He’s got a lot of talent,” Woods said. “We all know he’s got a wonderful golf swing and it’s just a matter of time before he starts winning a bunch of tournaments.”
That time could be now.