With a course pushing the brink and promising to get tougher, the Rory McIlroy green jacket campaign sounded like a case of fear and loathing Thursday.
“It’s about putting your ball in the right place, and it becomes more of a mental challenge than anything else, just playing to your spots,” McIlroy said after a first-round 71 left him three shots off the Masters lead. “It almost becomes like chess, where you’re just making these moves. That hasn’t been my forte in the past, but I’ll learn to love it this week.”
With greens rolling hot and tougher-than-usual Thursday pins, McIlroy required 34 putts in a first round in which he hit 15 greens. He three-putted three times – on Nos. 8, 12 and 18 – scoring bogey each time.
“They’re fast already,” McIlroy said. “By Sunday they’re going to be pretty dicey. I think every year you play practice rounds here, then there’s just a little extra fire in the course come Thursday. It’s a little firmer, a little faster. It’s to be expected here.”
Playing with prominent first-timers Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, McIlroy tried to put his experience to good use. Birdies at Nos. 3, 5, 13 and 15 had his name lurking on the leaderboard most of the day.
He kept his eye on it, paying less attention to the names and more to the scores, which never got too low. A few players reached as low as 4-under, where leader Bill Haas finished, but nobody could go deep. McIlroy called it “a good day for patience.”
“I think that they set the course up very difficult today,” McIlroy said. “Some of the pin positions were tough to get close to. It was just, sometimes I wasn’t putting the ball in the right place and taking two putts and getting out of there. For the most part, I felt like I put my ball in the positions they needed to be in, and it was just one of those days it was tough to get it close to the hole. The greens are firming up. The wind was all over the place. Anything under par today was a good score.”
When the course gets “fiery,” it requires more precision than power, and it leads to a grinding week on the greens, which hasn’t been McIlroy’s strength at Augusta.
“I think more grinding on the greens than anything else, because they’re getting firm and getting fast already,” he said. “There’s putts that you hit that look like they’re going in and just hit the edge, and all of a sudden they’re 4 or 5 feet by. And you really grind on those coming back.”
McIlroy is still looking for his first clean Masters without any major hiccups. He’s posted 77 or higher in each of his past four Masters starts, blowing a chance to win wire-to-wire in 2011 with a Sunday 80.
He hopes the lessons from the past are ready to pay off.
“I think that coming back each and every year, you do learn where not to miss it, and you learn where you need to position your ball to give yourself the easiest chance at birdie,” he said.