Nick Bonfield, our man on the ground at Augusta National, followed Rory McIlroy during his Tuesday practice round. Here's how he got on...
Rory McIlroy Impresses During Tuesday Practice
While many will naturally be concerned about such a late switch, I can confirm he looked as impressive as ever with his fairway woods when I watched him on holes 7 to 12 during an 18-hole practice round.
Indeed, his long game looked in imperious shape as he seeks to land The Masters title for the first time and complete the Career Grand Slam at the age of 28.
Here’s how McIlroy fared while in the company of Chilean amateur Toto Gana and exciting Australian Curtis Luck on Tuesday morning…
Related: Rory McIlroy practice tips
McIlroy missed the fairway left, before hitting two balls into the impossibly steep bunker at the front of the green. He played one ball out, leaving it six feet behind a back pin, and missed three attempts at the resulting six-footer. But don’t be overly concerned – it was a treacherous downhill left-to-righter.
He looked extremely relaxed as he hit a series of other practice putts – at one point borrowing Luck’s flat-stick – and he left the surface without hitting any chips.
There were audible gasps from the crowd as McIlroy unleashed a trademark booming drive down the 8th fairway. It pitched in line with the start of the second bunker, some 15 yards in front of fellow big-hitter Luck.
It was followed by what looked like a 5-wood from the left centre of the fairway, which finished just short right of the green. He almost holed the subsequent chip shot.
As he was chipping, caddie JP Fitzgerald placed two tees on the green – one back right and one back left. McIlroy struggled playing to the former from behind the surface, hitting one slight duff, but produced three lovely chips from the same spot to the back-right tee. He hit two or three practice putts – one a holed 10-footer – before heading to the 9th tee.
The Ulsterman hit another massive drive to the right centre of the fairway, before pitching his approach some five feet past the pin. It spun back a touch too much and settled on the tier below, but the quality of the strike deserved much better. Two putts led to a simple par.
McIlroy was clearly focussing on his lag putting during practice. He hit a number of putts from between 20 and 30 feet to various tees, almost holing an effort from the back-left tier which turned 90 degrees down a slope. In general, his lag putting looked very solid. It was also encouraging to see him hole a six-footer before leaving the green.
I heard a crisp whistle as McIlroy’s ball – struck from the M2 3-wood – sailed over my head and settled in perfect position in the left centre of the fairway. His approach came up a touch short, but two simple putts led to the easiest of pars on one of Augusta National’s toughest holes.
After completing the hole, the focus was very much on lag putting once more. Interestingly, he didn’t hit any practice chips on either the 9th or 10th, instead preferring to spend time on 20- to 30-footers – arguably a shrewd strategy given how often he’ll be playing for the centre of the green.
The 11th fairway is even narrower than it looks on television, but McIlroy striped another one down the left centre. It’s no exaggeration to say he hit his second shot from 60 yards in front of Gana.
He narrowly missed the green to the right, reloaded and hit almost the same shot again. He two-putted from the fringe before hitting a downhill bunker shot to a pin perched by the water. It was brilliantly judged. He then played a sublime checking chip from the swale to the right of the green that rolled up to gimme distance.
McIroy watched Gana find the front bunker, then hit a fine iron shot which finished pin-high some 10ft right of the pin. He missed the initial putt, but holed his second effort.
After that, he hit several chips from long and left of the green, which I took as an indication that he’ll be favouring the left side of the putting surface during the tournament proper.
McIlroy looked calm, collected and very comfortable on a beautiful morning in Augusta. He played holes 7 to 12 in level par, but it was all so easy, thanks principally to his driving. He wasn’t only finding fairways (except for the 7th, when he just missed short grass), but, crucially, he was finding the right portions of the fairways – something you have to do at Augusta to be aggressive with your second shots.
He put so little pressure on his game and there was absolutely no sign of rust – something many people feared would inhibit his chances of winning a Green Jacket this year. For the most part, his chipping looked very solid, and it was especially pleasing to see him execute a variety of different shots effectively.
If I have one concern, however, it’s his putting. While he looked accomplished from range, he didn’t appear overly convincing from within 10 feet. That said, we all know how streaky he can be on the greens – sometimes holing a tricky six-footer is all that’s required to facilitate a change in fortunes.
As I watched him, I couldn’t help but sense an inner calm and confidence, perhaps brought about by a prodigious display of ball striking. He looks focussed and ready. As always with McIlroy, success hinges on his putting. If he can produce a better-than-average display on the greens, I think he’ll be wearing green come Sunday.
Attend The 2018 Masters with Your Golf Travel – visit yourgolftravel.com/us-masters Experiences including flights, hotels & tickets are available. Nick Bonfield travelled to the 2017 Masters courtesy of Your Golf Travel.