AUGUSTA – If Rory McIlroy goes on to win the Masters, Thursday’s opening round could be the key.
The World No. 1, who is looking to complete the career Grand Slam with his third straight major win, got the most out of his round on a day he didn’t bring his A Game. He shot a 1-under-par 71, his ninth straight under par round in the majors.
“It could have been a round that got away from me,” he said. “I just kept telling myself to be patient out there. It was good to get into red numbers after one day and I feel the way I’m driving the ball, if I can keep doing that and just be a little more patient with my iron play, I hope to be right there at the end of the week.”
McIlroy says he hasn’t put any more pressure on himself.
“Look, I obviously know what I can achieve this week but I’m not letting myself think about it too much. Today was a pretty good day. I feel like I can do better,” he said.
Tom Watson finally played up to his age and it paid off.
Last year’s Ryder Cup captain took advantage of ideal playing conditions to card a 1-under par 71. The 65-year-old is in position to become the oldest player to make the cut at the Masters. Gary Player was 62 in 2009.
“It’s fun to be able to at least be in red figures at Augusta National,” he said. “At my age, it’s a minor miracle.”
Watson hasn’t made the cut since 2010 when he tied for 18th. He’s missed the cut 11 of the last 12 years.
“I played the golf course enough times to know where I’m supposed to hit it and where I’m not supposed to hit it,” he explained. “I struggled the last few years trying to hit shots like I used to when I know that I had to hit my best shot and the ego gets involved. My ego got involved too much the last few years. And today I just kind of played within myself.”
Watson was asked if he chatted with Phil Mickelson, who ripped his Ryder Cup captaincy.
“No, we just said hello and that was it,” he said.
EASY DOES IT
Ernie Els’ 67 was his lowest round in the Masters since 2004. The Big Easy makes the field by virtue of his 2012 British Open win. He wouldn’t qualify otherwise.
“I just felt comfortable. I felt at ease for some reason,” said the Big Easy. “But, as you say there’s been no sign of any form. So it’s been very special.”
Defending champ Bubba Watson is in decent shape at 1-under although he became distracted by the pace of play. “I got a little tired . . . 5:15 to play golf,” he said. “Both my tee shots (on the last two holes) were way to the left, just shoved them. I was just tired. I was not committed, not focused.”
HOMECOMING FOR HENLEY
Russell Henley, just four back after a 4-under-par 68, is a Georgia Bulldog who started coming to the Masters since before he was a teenager.
“I can remember on No. 2 one year. I remember reaching down late in the ay and touching the grass, like, ‘woa, this amazing.’ Every once in a while, I try to pinch myself and realize that I’m playing in it now. It’s a very special place with special memories.”
This is Henley’s third Masters. He says he gets more comfortable each year.
There was a great exchange between Darren Clarke and a Brit journalist who wondered if the next Ryder Cup captain finds himself a “different person, different man altogether transformed by the responsibility?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Clarke said. “You’re a better judge of that than me.”
“Do you find you’re standing up straighter, shoulders back more?”
Clarke, who shot 74 with two double bogeys, wasn’t feeling particularly proud at the moment.
“At the end of the day, I still want to compete myself, never mind the Ryder Cup,” he said. “I still want to go out and do as well as I can.”
NICE WAY TO START
Charley Hoffman set the early pace with a 67 playing in the first group of the day right after Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer hit their ceremonial first tee shots.
“It was cool getting up this morning and warming up with Jack, Arnie and Gary,” he said. “Puts the nerves at ease, really, watching those guys warm up.
“Out there at the putting green, I actually got Jack and Arnie’s autograph this morning; they were nice enough to do that. I was sort of scared, should I ask them, should I not ask them? My mind wasn’t really on golf really, I was watching those guys.”
Hoffman wears a green glove for Waste Management, his sponsor. He was asked if it’s he favorite color.
“It could be,” he replied.
The Big Three got things started with Palmer, who is coming off a shoulder injury, hitting a low hook and Nicklaus and Player hitting the fairway. Player was the long man.
Palmer was asked what he was thinking before the shot.
“I said, ‘Don’t fan it,” he conceded.
“I don’t think he was kidding,” Nicklaus said after the laughter stopped. “He said exactly the same thing to me.”
RUNNING OUT OF SPEED
Ben Crenshaw, playing his final Masters, struggled with a 91 and without his longtime caddie Carl Jackson, who was too ill to make the walk.
“The people were so nice today. I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to, I played so poorly,” Crenshaw said. “I’m ready to get it over with tomorrow.”
Crenshaw said Jackson will be with him in some way Friday.
“He’ll be with me,” he said. “I don’t know if he’s going to caddie, but we’ll see. But he’ll close it out with me on number 18.”
Crenshaw played a final nine-hole practice round with Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth Wednesday. Spieth said Crenshaw gave him a few tips about the greens that he put to use in his round of 64.
Tiger Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava, wore a Rangers T-shirt under his overalls. The Connecticut native is a big fan of the Blueshirts and the football Giants.