Augusta is determined to toy with Rory McIlroy. So when his approach shot struck the flagstick on the 18th green, the ball shot 30-yards off to the right and turned a possible eagle into a bogey. Take that, and enjoy your Friday night.
Cruel. Random. And perhaps expensive. A rebound at the end of another stressful day sent McIlroy into the clubhouse one-over par for the tournament (72, 73). It was a psychological blow after a birdie at 17. One step forward, one step back is McIlroy’s dance routine at the Masters. He is hardly alone in that, though it should be said he missed the chance to get up and down after clanging the flag on 18.
"I got two bad breaks with hitting the pin and then the wind deceived me,” he said later. "I just have to go out and birdie the first on Saturday and it will all be forgotten. I still feel like I'm right in this tournament."
Good things to report, bad things to describe. It was ever thus with McIlroy in Georgia. Reading too much into a single hole is a common error at Augusta: a seductive Shangri-La where, as he pointed out this week, the trick is to control “temptation.” But his chip-in at six, which was drilled more than floated, was the brighter news from his day, and confirmed an old truth. Natural talent is the best club you can have in a bag.
The great players are escapologists. They make things happen, but they also make things un-happen when the need arises. A bad shot is cancelled out by a good one. The alt-appeal of Tiger Woods was that he could put things right. He could make amends.
McIlroy’s mastery of this art is less reliable, as he showed again with an up-and-down second round. When it works, though, it keeps hope alive. And with McIlroy, there is always hope, because he is the most naturally-gifted golfer out there in the Georgia pines. But he needs a stellar couple of days now. "Going into the weekend I need some spells and to put a run together,” he said.
His first round was a classic salvage job: three bogeys on the front nine, three birdies on the way back in. A level-par 72, in which he found only five of 14 fairways, but was ranked third in putting.
Time is pressing. It should not be - but it is. He is only 26, for pete’s sake. There might be 20 more realistic chances to close the career slam of major titles, and join Jack Nicklaus, Woods, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player and Ben Hogan.
Yet the pressure on him has assumed a peculiar intensity, in part because of his collapse here in 2011, when he led for three rounds but finished tied for 15th after shooting an 80 on the Sunday.
His eight-year Augusta record is worth repeating: T-20, missed the cut, T-15, T-40, T-25, T-8, fourth, T-10. Before this year, he had posted 14 double bogeys or worse - more than any player aged under 50. If we make too much of his quest for the Masters grail, it may be because of the disconnect between his skill set, which is suited to this course, and his finishing positions.
Whatever: following him is always compelling. It feels like watching history taxying on the runway. If not now, then soon. Not if, but when. To have won all four major titles would lift him to the pantheon of UK sport. To see him denied would leave a gaping hole in his story.
This time round, the expectation rose another notch with Dustin Johnson’s withdrawal and Jordan Spieth’s opening-round quadruple bogey at 15. Both events seemed to plead with McIlroy to capitalise.
If he was feeling the heat here on Friday, he was also feeling the cold. He wore a pair of gloves so big that he looked like someone about to take a casserole from an oven. The ski mitts stayed on for the first few holes. Marginal gains, perhaps. Certainly a sign of how changing weather has disturbed the thoughts of this Masters field.
In his “good frame of mind” from Thursday, he started Friday bogey, birdie, bogey, entertaining the galleries with a mammoth 393-yard drive at the par five second, and missing an eagle putt by inches. But then a birdie chance at three ended up as a bogey, before the chip in from 18-yards at the 6th, where a good tee-shot had rolled down a slope, and kept rolling, requiring its sender to pull off a moment of brilliance.
McIlroy was not kidding when he said of Augusta: “It's just a matter of being smart, taking your medicine when you have to and moving on.” He will have to now.
At least his magnetism is constant. On the fifth fairway his drive landed on green gravel to the right, and the crowd pressed in tight, waiting to feel his aura close up. He surveyed the scene with darting eyes, settled himself in an athletic stance and clipped an iron shot to within puttable distance.
Birdie. The first of two in a row. Look out. Rory is coming. But the middle of his round stagnated, before that birdie-bogey finish, and the ricochet off the pin. The Rory McIlroy Masters mission: flashes of brilliance, lots of stress.