This time, McIlroy a cut above

This time, McIlroy a cut above
April 7, 2011, 8:53 pm
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Thursday, April 7, 2011, 4:45 p.m.

MASTERS LEADERBOARD

By Leonard ShapiroCSNwashington.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. Rory McIlroy considers the Masters my favorite week of the whole year, and after his rousing performance in the opening round at Augusta National Thursday, it could get even better than that for the engaging 21-year-old native of Northern Ireland.

Certainly no matter what happens over the next three days, it has to be an improvement over his 2010 Masters, when a sore back that had been bothering him for several months flared up during the tournament. The injury led to a deflating missed cut after rounds of 74 and 77 in his second start in the first major championship of the season.

A repeat of that huge disappointment from a year ago does not seem likely this week after McIlroy, now No. 9 in the world rankings, opened the 75th Masters with a 7-under 65 that began with birdies on three of his first four holes on a sparkling spring day of little breeze and warming sun. McIlroy had seven birdies and no bogeys and finished tied for the first-round lead with Alvaro Quiros of Spain. It also marked the first time in seven Masters rounds that he posted a score in the 60s.

Despite his baby face, curly locks and tender age, McIlroy played with the precision and patience of a seasoned veteran Thursday, not unlike his opening round in the 2010 British Open. He fired a 63 at St. Andrews, the lowest first round in tournament history, to lead after 18 holes before eventually tying for third place.

McIlroy got the worst of the fickle Scottish weather the next day and soared to a second-round 80, his worst score in a major event. But he said Thursday he also learned some valuable lessons from that humbling experience. He also managed to get himself back in contention, leading the tournament with four holes to play on Sunday before fading down the stretch and settling for third.

I seem to play well in the big occasion, McIlroy, also a member of the winning European Ryder Cup team last fall, said Thursday. Big occasions are something Im learning to deal with, and I feel as if Im dealing with them pretty well at the minute.

Last August, McIlroy also tied for third at the PGA Championship, and no one here was the least bit surprised to see his name at the top of the leaderboard. After all, the missed cut in the Masters marked the only time in nine career starts that McIlroy did not play on the weekend in a major championship. In his Masters debut as a 19-year-old in 2009, he tied for 20th place. In those nine major starts, he has five top-20 finishes.

McIlroy is yet another in a string of precocious golfing proteges now starting to make some serious noise in professional golf. That became quite evident a year ago when, two weeks after his Masters misery, McIlroy posted a brilliant final round of 62 at the Quail Hollow event to secure his first PGA Tour victory. Some were rightly stunned when he wasnt named the tours Rookie of the Year, an honor accorded to another flashy youngster, Rickie Fowler, even if McIlroys performance in most measurable categories seemed far more impressive.

Nevertheless, they have become good friends and were actually paired today and Friday. Fowler and everyone else who watched McIlroy play was properly impressed. In with a solid 70 himself, Fowler said: It looked like he was doing everything right. Nice to see him do that. He looked like he was swinging with great confidence.

Despite his two-year exemption to play the PGA Tour after winning Quail Hollow, McIlroy announced that he would be playing primarily on the European Tour for the 2011 season, the better to be closer to home. Hes only played in two PGA Tour stroke-play events this year, finishing tied for 10th at Doral last month.

McIlroy also raised some eyebrows when he announced he had no intention of entering the The Players next month in Ponte Vedra, Fla., considered just a notch below the majors on the tour schedule. He said he doesnt particularly like the golf course and will stay home instead. And he rattled a few more coffee cups earlier this season when he said very publicly that most players, including him, are no longer intimidated by Tiger Woods' presence in the field.

Still, McIlroy insists he has no regrets in stating his mind.

I think you should answer questions honestly, he said at the Honda Classic last month. And thats what I do.

Mostly what he did Thursday was make birdies in great big bunches on a course that was playing fast and firm under a brilliant blue sky. His longest birdie putt of the day was 20 feet, and six of his birdies came with putts of 10 feet or less.

Its a great start to the tournament. It was fun to see a few putts drop, said MCIlroy, who also had a little fun Wednesday night throwing a football around with a few friends on the street in front of their rented house not far from the course. It was a blast, at least, until a woman who had no idea who he was came out of her nearby house and asked them to hush up a bit. The lads quickly moved inside.

There was plenty of noise surrounding McIlroy on the golf course Thursday, particularly as he began moving up the board with back-to-back birdies at Nos. 14 and 15 before finishing with three straight pars. He said he knew he was playing well coming into the tournament after spending the past three weeks in South Florida polishing his game with his coach. He also played a number of rounds with friends on several courses in the area before coming to Augusta last Thursday to begin his final preparations for the tournament.

That practice was obviously perfect judging from his spectacular opening round, one he described as very solid. I wouldnt say it was as explosive or spectacular as the 63 at St. Andrews, but it was very solid start to finish.

With more spectacular weather in the Friday forecast, it would be hard to imagine McIlroy tumbling down the board the way he did at St. Andrews. The memory of that disaster, he said, will be a massive help to me a very valuable lesson in my development as a golfer.

"Its possible that I can go out and shoot another 65, but I also know its very likely I wont do that. If I do find myself in a bit of trouble, Im going to have to stick in there, grind it out, and thats something I learned at St. Andrews. Im still relatively inexperienced, but I feel like Im a quick learner.

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Contact Shapiro at badgerlen@aol.com.