If Rory McIlroy is to win his first Green Jacket here tomorrow night it seems he will also have to repel the resurrection of Tiger Woods.
While the Ulsterman was wonderfully assured in pulling away in the 75th Masters yesterday, it was the former world No 1 who stole the roars. The question now will be whether they will distract the young man from his ever more convincing purpose.
At 10-under, the 21-year-old leads the 23-year-old Jason Day by two shots at the top of leaderboard. But just one shot back is a hugely familiar and imposing figure prowling through those pines. This was a flashback to the old days, to the bold days, to the days when Augusta was the Tiger's natural habit. As he finished fourth last year, it has probably always remained so, but yesterday's 66 at the very least reminded of his loving for Augusta. And, indeed, for major competition.
Woods has enjoyed just one top 10 all year and is in the midst of rebuilding both his life and his swing in the continuing wake of the sex scandal. But now, with just two players above him, redemption beckons. Not to mention a fifth Masters title. His birdie on the 18th was classic Woods. Into the trees, on to the green with an outrageous approach; 12-footer into the middle of the hole. Now where have we seen that fist-pump before?
It is all too easy to become seduced by thoughts of an impending Woods rebirth, but he has been in these positions before in the last 17 fruitless months and has always proved too inconsistent. And in McIlroy there is a front-runner with an inexorable feel to his march. Indeed, with every stride here he has reminded of another young European who brought Augusta to it knees three decades ago. McIlroy has already trumped Seve Ballesteros as the youngest man ever to lead the Masters after the first round. And now will back himself to emulate the great conquistador with a famous wire-to-wire victory.
"I look down everyone in this field and at some point I have beaten them – there is absolutely no reason why I can't do it again," said McIlroy. "I don't really care what anyone else does. I don't need to know. It will be great for the tournament if he [Woods] is up there. But I'm two ahead of Jason and am in a better position."
Confident stuff. But then, it was the tone of his entire day. McIlroy went out determined not to capitulate in this second round, as he did at last year's Open with an 80, but managed rather more than that. He pulled away, with a 69 of supreme control. Indeed, but for two missed chances on the 17th and 18th McIlroy would have a larger advantage. In truth, there were very few wobbles. Birdies on the second, fifth and ninth were surrounded by pars as he advanced into double digits. Indeed, it took until the 12th, the famed par-three, until McIlroy finally blemished his scorecard. The four, courtesy of a visit to the back bunker, was his first bogey at this Masters.
It did not even qualify as a mini-disaster as every one of his 98 rivals had recorded at least one bogey on the opening day. And anyway, McIlroy made instant correction with a birdie on the par-five 13th, which should have been an eagle after a sumptuous approach to the shadow of the pin. It was solid from there on in, adding yet more conviction to the optimism. Are we really on the verge of a first European victory here since 1999?
If McIlroy does allow himself a peek down the leaderboard it will tell him of the quality in pursuit. K J Choi is in third alongside Woods on seven-under and then a shot back is the 2006 US Open winner, Geoff Ogilvy, and the joint first-round leader Alvaro Quiros, from Spain. Then on five-under, after a 67 is the world No 2 Lee Westwood. Another tantalising reason for Britain to tune in this weekend, as is the presence of four-under of two other Englishmen in Luke Donald and Ross Fisher.
Westwood's putter finally obliged, a 20-footer for eagle on the 15th hauling him into contention. After finishing runner-up last year, Westwood knows exactly what it takes and will be interested to see the defending champion, Phil Mickelson, back in a tie for 20th after a scrappy 72 left him on two-under. Believe it, the player who finished second in two of the three majors he played in 2010 has another live chance. Martin Kaymer, the world No 1, missed his cut again at the Masters and also exiting prematurely was the world No 5 Graeme McDowell. Big names have fallen, but bigger names remain. This climax could rival any which have come here before.
Yet however much attention is on Woods or Westwood, Day will again be such an interesting partner for McIlroy. Day shot a best-of-the-week 64, coming back in 31 strokes to make up five shots on playing partner McIlroy. "I didn't even know Jason was scoring so well, until I looked up at the scoreboard on the 15th," said McIlroy. It was that sort of three-ball. Short on age, limitless in talent. There was only 66 years between McIlroy, Day and Rickie Fowler, but with the latter being five-under, they were a collective 23-under for two rounds. Little wonder there has been so much said and written recently about the changing of the guard.
Yet don't rule out the wrinklies. Look at Fred Couples. At 51 he is seven years older than the combined age of the two pacesetters, but there he stands on five-under after a 68. Is it possible that on the 25th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus's record Masters win as a 46-year-old, Augusta is about to witness an even more startling resurrection? Well, Couples finished sixth last year and, despite a bad back, he is not discounting any scenario.
"Could I win? Of course," said Couples. "Am I looking forward to playing tomorrow. You bet. This is probably the only Tour event I probably can still win What would it mean to me if I did? it would mean retiring, that's what. You know, it would be the in the golf history. Are you kidding? I'd be gone."
(US unless stated; *denotes amateur)
134 R McIlroy (N Irl) 65 69
136 J Day (Aus) 72 64
137 K J Choi (S Kor) 67 70, T Woods 71 66
138 G Ogilvy (Aus) 69 69, A Quiros (Sp) 65 73
139 R Barnes 68 71, Y E Yang (S Kor) 67 72, F Couples 71 68, R Fowler 70 69,L Westwood 72 67
140 C Schwartzel (SA) 69 71, L Donald (Eng) 72 68, J Furyk 72 68, R Fisher (Eng) 69 71, B Snedeker 69 71
141 D Toms 72 69, A Cabrera (Arg) 71 70
142 T Immelman (SA) 69 73 S Stricker 72 70, P Casey (Eng) 70 72, P Mickelson 70 72, G Woodland 69 73, D Johnson 74 68, A Scott (Aus) 72 70, B van Pelt 73 69, R Ishikawa (Japan) 71 71
143 C Hoffman 74 69, R Moore 70 73, I Poulter (Eng) 74 69, A Cejka (Ger) 72 71, R Palmer 71 72, M Laird (Sco) 74 69
144 M A Jimenez (Sp) 71 73, E Molinari (It) 74 70, B Watson 73 71, J Rose (Eng) 73 71, N Watney 72 72, B Haas 74 70
145 K-T Kim (S Kor) 70 75, *H Matsuyama (Japan) 72 73, *L Kim (S Kor) 76 72, J Bohn 73 75, S Marino 74 71, J Overton 73 72, C Villegas (Col) 70 75, A Baddeley (Aus) 75 70
146 L Glover 75 71, Z Johnson 73 73, A Kim 73 73, S Cink 71 75, S O'Hair 70 76, T Clark (SA) 73 73147 S Appleby (Aus) 75 72, J Kelly 74 73, K Na 73 74, M Wilson 76 71
148 D A Points 72 76, P Hanson (Swe) 72 76, B Crane 73 75, Y Ikeda (Japan) 74 74, L Oosthuizen (SA) 75 73, J Vegas (Ven) 72 76, *D Chung 72 76, H Slocum 72 76, C Pett'son (Swe) 75 73, R Goosen (SA) 70 78
149 K Streelman 75 74, *P Uihlein 72 77, A Hansen (Den) 72 77, G Havret (Fr) 70 79, H Fujita (Japan) 70 79, P Harrington (Irl) 77 72
150 JM Olazabal (Sp) 73 77, M O'Meara 77 73, R Sabbatini (SA) 74 76, L Mize 73 77, *Jin Jeong (S Kor) 73 77
151 T Watson 79, 72, C Stadler 80 71, J Byrd 73 78
152 *N Smith 75 77, D Love III 75, 77
153 S Lyle (Sco) 73 80
154 V Singh (Fiji) 76 78
155 I Woosnam (Wal) 78 77, B Crenshaw 78 77, M Weir (Can) 76 79
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