America's courtship of Rory McIlroy, which began with a hug after his Sunday 80 last year, is now a full-on love affair. The 22-year-old from Holywood signed for a second-round 69, three under par, that took him to four under for the tournament, and had the galleries cheering his name as he climbed the hill to the clubhouse.
"I know I'm playing well," McIlroy said. "I just wanted to come here and put myself in position to win another major." Mission accomplished. He is now beautifully placed for a tilt at a Green Jacket.
It must have been standing room only on that midnight train to Georgia because when McIlroy teed off, shortly after a late breakfast yesterday, the spectators were crammed 20-deep around the first tee. Never mind that the traditional electric-blue Augusta sky had been replaced by grey Northern Irish clouds – and a nippy breeze, too. The mid-fifties temperature was 35F colder than at the start of the week.
With Tiger Woods teeing off late, McIlroy took thousands with him up the hill and into the front nine. There was even a Tiger theme as McIlroy had turned up in classic Woodsian red and black, albeit with a punk rock pocket with a Sex Pistols-style zip slashed across his chest. His partners were the 2009 champion Angel Cabrera, dressed all in black, and Bubba Watson sporting a white sweater and cricket trousers.
By the time they got to the bottleneck by the third green and fourth tee, jostling for a spot to watch the Boy Wonder hit a shot was like trying to get on the London Tube at Piccadilly Circus in rush hour.
Except, of course, that there would not be another Rory coming along in two minutes. This was the last chance for many fans to glimpse their hero on this hallowed turf. Athletic basketball types built like giraffes saw everything. Normal people saw heads and shoulder of other normal people, and the top of McIlroy's club as it swished back and followed through. Children and women saw chino-coloured backsides. Still, they can all go home and tell their pals: "I was there. I saw Rory at the Masters."
The giraffes, though, will be able to dine out on tales of two McIlroy birdies. First he bounced along the third fairway in that Tigger way of his, then flipped his wedge shot straight at the flag. It pitched on the green pin-high, but took a vicious kick left and came to rest 15 feet away. He walked after it looking more like Eeyore now, blowing out his cheeks in frustration.
But he at least had an uphill putt. While his long game seemed all just a bit of a struggle, McIlroy showed great maturity and patience to hang on in there and wait for opportunities to come. And here was his first of the day. Gone is the twitchy, over-complicated putting routine. He now simply decides on his line and sends the ball on its way without one practice swing. Birdie. Whoops and hollers from behind the ropes. A smile from Rory.
The McIlroy fan club rumbled on to the fourth, and then came to a grinding halt. The group in front – Sergio Garcia, KJ Choi and David Toms – were backed up in a holding pattern. It wasn't their fault, though: the general pace of play was pathetic, one hour to play three holes. Garcia had time to grow a beard.
Golf is supposed to be a compelling sport watched by tens of thousands at Augusta and millions around the world on TV. At times yesterday it was more like a still-life exhibition. If this gets any slower, forget putting players on the clock; officials will need a calendar.
This day was wait, hit, walk, wait, wait, hit, walk, and repeat for over five hours until stark raving bonkers. The levels of concentration needed by McIlroy and his peers are extraordinary. How they can hit awe-inspiring shots one second then switch off and be ready to switch back on again is nothing short of genius.
Just after McIlroy had sent his tee shot arcing towards the fourth green, a siren rudely interrupted the proceedings. It lasted only a few seconds: the Pinkerton security guards had no doubt apprehended some yahoo who had sneaked in his mobile phone – like running, they are forbidden at Augusta. Up on the green, McIlroy eased in another long birdie putt with that smooth stroke.
"Here we go, baby. Here he comes," came a yell from behind the 18th green. So it looks as if McIlroy has acquired "He" status here, to join Woods and Phil Mickelson in golf's holy trinity.