Michaux: Rory McIlroy finding his calm in the chaos of Augusta National
A quiet mind might be an impossible goal for anyone at the Masters. The least Rory McIlroy can ask for is a non-disruptive conversation in his head.
With consecutive under-par rounds leaving him tied with Jordan Spieth in fourth place, McIlroy is listening to his best golf instincts.
“I’m constantly having a conversation with myself about staying in the present and just one shot at a time and all the cliché stuff that you hear about,” McIlroy said after a second-round 71. “But it’s true. You know, that’s all I’m doing.”
When the stake is the culmination of a quest to win the career slam, it would be easy to let the head race into unhelpful places. McIlroy has let it get the better of him in the past and cost him dearly at Augusta.
His thinking might be his greatest improvement in his 10th attempt at a green jacket.
“I’ve been pleased with how I’ve felt and my thought process and where I am mentally, I’ve felt really good about that,” he said. “I feel like I don’t have to swing my best to play my best golf, but if I can think the way I’m thinking right now and stay in that mindset, that’s when I’ve been able to produce my best results.”
Starting strong has always been a key to McIlroy’s success in majors. In all four of his major victories, he’s been in the top five after the opening round. He was tied for fourth after his opening 69 on Thursday.
“I’ve always felt comfortable being up around the lead,” he said. “It’s a place that I’m thankfully quite familiar with and know how to deal with.”
That wasn’t true in 2011. After an opening 65, McIlroy held the lead through 63 holes before his back-nine collapse cost him the chance to check the green jacket off his list first instead of last. With four consecutive top-10 finishes at Augusta since 2014, he’s steadily rebuilt his confidence and honed his plan of attack.
He summed it up succinctly on Friday: “Stay patient. Birdie the par 5s. Keep your putts on the high side of the hole. Hope for the best.”
Perfectly simple and perfectly attainable for a player of McIlroy’s caliber. He put that gameplan into use Friday after a volatile start that included two birdies and three bogeys in the first six holes. He held the round together with par-saving putts of 7, 7 and 8 feet on holes 7, 10 and 11 before birdies at 13 and 14 got him back in the red for the day.
“Sometimes pars might be a little bit boring and you might feel as if you want to get a little bit more out of your round,” he said of a turbulent mind that cost him in the past. “But as you look up the leaderboard and you’re still there around the lead, that’s taken awhile for me to adjust to.
“I think whenever I first came out here on tour, I thought all these guys birdied every hole and you just had to hit unbelievable shot after unbelievable shot and hole the putt afterwards. It’s not quite like that. You know, golf is a game of making your misses not that bad and taking advantage of your good shots.”
McIlroy can learn a lot from 2015 champion Spieth, who has his share of scars from Masters past yet has never let them cloud his mind at Augusta National.
“I’ve taken a lot of punches on this golf course, and in tournaments in general,” said Spieth, who squandered his overnight lead with a double-bogey start before rebounding to stay in the hunt. “I’m not going to downgrade my skill level, but I’m also not going to downgrade my ability to take punches and fight back on this course.”
That’s a lesson it’s taken longer for McIlroy to absorb, but he seems to have figured out the formula at the perfect time. With weather conditions potentially making the traditionally tough Saturday setup an even bigger challenge, McIlroy is satisfied that he’s put himself in position to make an historic effort this weekend.
“It makes it all the more pleasing that I’m up there near the lead,” he said. “It’s such a hard golf course to chase on. You start to go for pins and you start chasing it, that’s when you can bring in some trouble and make some mistakes.”
While Patrick Reed and Marc Leishman got a little bit of separation in the afternoon, McIlroy isn’t bemoaning any missed chances. He’s in a beautiful spot with destiny within his reach. But it’s his beautiful mind that satisfies him the most.
“I think I’m happier with how I’ve felt and how I’ve handled certain things and how my thought process has been,” he said. “That’s been a pleasing thing.”