Augusta National Conquers All: Spieth and McIlroy Go Toe-to-Toe Saturday
AUGUSTA, GA. For a brief moment during the 2nd round of the 2016 Masters it appeared what Jordan Spieth had done when winning in 2015 would happen again with this year’s Masters. The Texan started strongly — birdieing the 1st and 3rd holes to reach -8 for the event and it appeared his fellow competitors would be looking far behind in his rear view mirror. Then Spieth opened the door with a double-bogey at the 5th. The 22-year-old defending champion then bogied the 9th and 10th holes and what had appeared to be a possible run away has now turned into a fascinating final two rounds this weekend with any number of players fully capable in taking home the green jacket.
The overall winner of Friday’s play was Augusta National Golf Club. As demanding as the course played in Thursday first round — the stroke average for Friday’s play was a full shot higher — just over 75. The steady northwest winds that remained constant throughout the day’s play proved too much for the field with vexing wind patterns that made club selection difficult and caused a number of players to be thoroughly challenged even over the most routine of putts. There were no rounds in the 60’s — only three broke par — and players were simply trying to avoid losing all connection to the top of the leaderboard.
Saturday’s 3rd round will now feature in the final group — the world number two and three ranked players — Spieth and Rory McIlroy. The two have combined to win four of the last six major championships. But they are far from the only players with excellent chances. No less than 13 players are within four shots of the lead and are fully capable in making themselves viable with 36 holes to go.
Nonetheless, Spieth tied Arnold Palmer’s 1961-62 record for consecutive rounds in the lead — six in counting. However, Jordan did something he’s never done in a competitive round at Augusta — finish over par with two-over-par 74 score. But to Spieth’s credit after bogeying the 17th to have his lead shrink to just one shot he made a concluding par after finding the greenside bunker to the right of the hole. The net effect? Spieth, instead of limping home tied for the lead — continues for another day as the outright leader at four-under-par 140 for two rounds.
The 2nd round featured likely the final competitive round of two-time Masters champion Tom Watson. The eight-time-major winner played in an amazing 43 Masters and finished with rounds of 74-78. The cut came at +6 and included for just the 3rd time in 24 starts three-time winner Phil Mickelson.
The main storyline was the consistent northwest winds that kept players off balance with swirling breezes and gusts at times reached 25+ mph. The dried out putting surfaces made no situation routine by any means. As the players finished their rounds it was clear the battle to stay near to the lead was an exhausting grind.
McIlroy finished earlier than most with a one-under-par 71 and unlike Thursday first round where he bogied two of the final three holes for 70 — this time the Northern Irishman after bogeying the most difficult hole on the course — the stout par-4 11th — concluded his round with four birdies on the final six holes. A win at Augusta will elevate Rory to a status only five others in the history of the game have achieved – a career Grand Slam.
Saturday is always called “moving day” because major swings of shots can happen at Augusta — from those back in the pack and by those at the top of the leaderboard who fail to continue to keep pushing onward.
Spieth and McIlroy will make for an interesting day for the two combatants. They are fully aware of what the other can do when on his game. The issue is not having their time together get so wrapped up in what they do that they lose focus on the bigger picture which is to shoot the best number possible and enter Sunday’s final round in the best possible position.
The 80th Masters is only halfway completed — the final 36-holes should prove to make for an interesting assessment on which players have the wherewithal to push aside all the clutter and garner the prestigious title. With steady winds expected Saturday and cool temperatures accompanying them the likelihood of low scores will be tested to the max. While one man will ultimately take home the coveted green jacket the rest will likely feel they’ve been in a straight jacket in trying to handle a course that is showing anything remotely close to southern hospitality.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.