AUGUSTA, Ga. — When Rory McIlroy arrived Thursday for his opening-round tee time at Augusta National, he did so having skipped the Par 3 Contest Wednesday, and with a renewed focus on the task at hand.
The task, as McIlroy outlined Tuesday during his pre-tournament press conference, is to win a Green Jacket sooner rather than later.
“I think each and every year that passes that I don’t (win one) it will become increasingly more difficult,” he admits.
The baby-faced McIlroy continued to say it was important to make sure he started The Masters well enough.
“I think it’s imperative to get off to a great start here, a good start. You look at a lot of Masters champions in the past, they have been right up there from the first day,” he said at the time.
Thursday, he did the former. It was a good, but not great, start for the Northern Irishman.
Finishing with bogeys on two of his last three holes – one the result of a “tired swing,” he admits – he ended with a two-under-par 70. That has him tied for ninth.
“I had a lot of good opportunities today, I just needed to stay patient,” he says. “I felt like a couple shots got away, but if someone offered me a 70 on the first tee today, I probably would have taken it.”
Despite four bogeys on the card, he also made eagle on the par-5 13th, and had four birdies.
On the par-3 12th, he hit it long – something you absolutely cannot do at Augusta National because of the hazard lurking in front of the green – and his shoulders slumped forward. But he managed to salvage a par.
He followed that up with the aforementioned eagle that caused a pine tree-shaking roar.
His two-under score marks his second-lowest opening round at Augusta, second only to his 65 in 2011. There, he held the lead going into Sunday before ballooning to an eight-over-par 80.
Wearing a grey and black Nike sweater with the same patterned shirt underneath, white pants with a grey belt, and new shoes emblazoned with a golden swoosh and ‘4/13’ on them (a tip of the cap to Kobe Bryant’s final NBA game), the most interesting part of his ensemble may be his golf ball.
For the rest of the week, he’ll be using Nike balls stamped with ‘RM5.’ His initials, of course, but ‘5’ signifies the quest for his fifth major (he won the 2011 U.S. Open, 2012 and 2014 PGA Championships, and the 2014 British Open).
If he manages to achieve that goal, he’ll become only the sixth golfer in history to capture the Grand Slam – the most recent being Tiger Woods (the others: Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones. Not bad company). And that’s weighing on his mind.
“It’s something that I’d obviously be very proud of and something that I feel would set me apart,” he explains. “But there’s a lot of golf to be played before that.”
McIlroy didn’t come to Augusta for his usual spring visit this year because he didn’t want to overthink this year’s event. In fact, he didn’t come to Augusta at all before the week began.
“I feel like I play my best golf when I’m more relaxed, when I’m having fun out there,” he explains. “It’s a very special event and obviously it is different in it’s own way, but I don’t want to treat it any differently.”
With the biggest name in golf, Jordan Spieth, at the top of the leaderboard after Thursday, the world No. 3 isn’t letting that get to him or causing him to change his game plan.
“I didn’t pay attention too much to the scoreboard before I teed off,” he explains. “Jordan is very comfortable here, and he’ll be tough to beat this week. But I know there’s a lot of golf left, and I’ve got good enough golf in me.”
He’s still chasing Spieth, his own expectations, and history. But Thursday at The Masters, McIlroy, who tees off Friday at 11:05 a.m., took a strong first step towards the end of the race.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun (the next few days). And, I’m looking forward to it.”
Gary Player opened the 80th Masters with an honorary tee-shot right down the middle of the first fairway, while Jack Nicklaus’ was high and left… Rickie Fowler and Bryson DeChambeau (along with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell) were also on-hand… Paulina Gretzky caddied for hubby Dustin Johnson during the Par 3 Contest Wednesday… Jordan Spieth’s driver broke Wednesday night and had to be replaced before Thursday’s opening round… Ernie Els made a 9 on his first hole, with six putts… Mike Weir shot 4-over-par 76. He hasn’t shot in the 60s at The Masters since 2009…