Masters 2016: Rory McIlroy makes big move by closing like Jordan Spieth –

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — There are drains the size of manholes all over the grounds of Augusta National. They have plastic grates covering them. They’re for rainwater, but when you walk past, they roar beneath your feet. You can almost feel the air being sucked down into the earth through them.

Looking at these grates on Friday, it was not difficult to make a connection between their existence and Jordan Spieth was doing to the 2016 Masters. Spieth started galloping away with the thing on Thursday. He was sucking the life right out of the tournament early Friday, just as he did a year ago, because this is what he does.

Then suddenly, after a couple rare Spieth mistakes on this course, Rory McIlroy surged forward, reestablishing his prominence.

McIlroy fought the weather and his own mistakes to scratch out Friday’s best round (at the time of his finish). It was a 71 that felt a lot better than 1 under. It was, dare I say, Spieth-ian at the end. McIlroy lingered all day at 2 under then 1 under before falling to even par on the second nine. That sounds terrible considering Spieth, the outright leader, touched 8 under early in the day.

think you look up and you see it. I think at one point I was maybe seven or eight shots back of Jordan today. It just shows you how quickly things can change, especially here on this golf course and these conditions.

“Unless someone is playing exceptionally well and really distances themselves from the field, everything sort of evens out,” said McIlroy. “Jordan got off to a very fast start yesterday and got off to another fast start today. The conditions are so tough, it’s hard to keep that going.

“I think the most comfortable thing for me on this golf course is knowing that even if you are five or six shots back, things can change quite quickly. I’ve been on the opposite end of that where things can start to get away from you. That gives me confidence knowing that if you are a little bit behind, you can definitely make a comeback.”

McIlroy did that as the wind picked up and he breathed life into the tournament by finishing with three birdies and the par of his life over the last six holes. McIlroy made birdie at Nos. 13, 15 and 16, the last of which was a slippery putt to a painful hole location.

He left one short on No. 17. A Nike executive who was following McIlroy looked at Nike CEO Phil Knight, who was also along for the ride, and shrugged, “The best putter wins every week.”

On No. 18, knowing he needed par to have a chance at getting into the final group with Spieth on Saturday, McIlroy blocked his drive badly to the right. It was a spot I witnessed him surveying earlier in the week during a practice round with Englishman Chris Wood. McIlroy said he started playing one ball during his practice round this week.

“Go play it out of the trees,” McIlroy said earlier in the week. “I’ve hit it off pine straw this week … a few times. You get more of a feel of how the course is actually going to play and especially from certain areas that you wouldn’t normally hit out of in a practice round.”

McIlroy knew exactly what to do. Caddie J.P. Fitzgerald crawled on his hands and knees to confirm there was a slot for McIlroy to hit a ground ball up towards the green. He executed it and hit a wedge to 10 feet.

McIlroy turned to face the giant scoreboard on No. 18 when he reached the green. He saw Phil Mickelson at 2 over and amateur Bryson DeChambeau at 2 under. Up there at the very top, he saw Spieth and suddenly knew what he’d need to do to get into Spieth’s pairing on Saturday.

The putt was buried. McIlroy pumped his first and shook hands with his playing partners. He knew he had closed the way Spieth does when he wins golf tournaments — when he wins major championships.

“It’s tricky out there,” said McIlroy. “I think anything under par today is a very good score.” Only two golfers had come in under par when McIlroy finished (him and Troy Merritt).

McIlroy walked off the green on Thursday after a 70 with his hat up, an exasperated look on his face. On Friday, his hat sat low over his eyes. He knew he’d gotten to within striking distance of Spieth.

He stopped to greet a man with special needs. He gave him a high five and a huge smile. Maybe it made him think of Spieth’s sister. Fitzgerald stopped shortly after to hand the man the ball McIlroy had used to get into the afternoon pairings on Sunday. Everybody roared. It was a sweet moment.

McIlroy has serious work ahead, though. This is his first real chance at the career Grand Slam after a backdoor top 10 at this tournament last season. In order to do it, McIlroy will have to beat out the person he doesn’t want to consider a nemesis, the one who will likely be his foil for the next decade.

The juxtaposition is profound. They are so different, these two. They’re also so, so good.

And now, they’re the main event.

“I definitely feel like I’m coming in here this year without as much hype or anticipation,” McIlroy told ESPN. “You got Jordan coming back as defending champion, Jason Day getting to No. 1 in the world … there’s a lot of guys that were coming in here playing well. I felt like I was a part of the narrative instead of being the narrative, and I like that position.”

Those fleeting moments are over.

“I’m really trying to block [the Slam] out,” said McIlroy. “It’s another golf tournament I’m trying to win. I’m trying to beat guys on this leaderboard that I’ve beaten before. I need to take confidence from that and know that I’ve been in this position before. I know it’s a very big weekend for me. I know that.”

Bring on the weekend.

Rory closed like a boss on Friday. (USATSI)
Rory closed like a boss on Friday. (USATSI)

Masters 2016: Rory McIlroy makes big move by closing like Jordan Spieth –