Rory McIlroy nicely positioned at the Masters

Rory McIlroy reacts to a putt on the 18th green during his round of 71. Picture: Getty Images
Rory McIlroy reacts to a putt on the 18th green during his round of 71. Picture: Getty Images
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So far, so good. That’s the halfway verdict on Rory McIlroy in his fourth attempt to become just the sixth player to complete golf’s career Grand Slam. His immediate reaction after finishing the second round was mild disappointment. That was caused by him being unable to convert good birdie opportunities at both the 17th and 18th. Given time, though, he will know it was another good day’s work at Augusta National in the event’s 82nd staging.

On a day of survival – a wind swirling through the tall pine trees made scoring extremely difficult – McIlroy backed up his opening 69 with a 71 to sit on four-under. That’s the best he’s managed over the first two days here since 2012 – the year after he suffered a last-day capitulation when he had one arm in a Green Jacket. “Obviously a nice position going into the weekend,” admitted McIlroy after setting the clubhouse target.

That was matched in the very next group by Jordan Spieth. He’d started out with a two-shot lead after an opening 66. It was the ninth time in 17 rounds the Texan had led here. This one quickly disappeared. He started 6-6 to drop three shots straight away, a badly pushed 3-wood causing the damage at the par-4 first.

Spieth, pictured, was back to two-under after a bogey at the seventh before fighting back on the inward half. Birdies at the 13th and 15th repaired some of the earlier damage as he carded a 74. “Two bad swings caused two bad drives,” he said of that stuttering start. “After yesterday, I felt I had a better round in me than a couple over. But it was a pretty good fightback on the back nine.”

McIlroy has taken time to get over those final-round scars from seven years ago. In truth, the 28-year-old hasn’t been back in the hunt in the season’s opening major since then. He is now, though, and his start could be ominous. On the previous occasions McIlroy has been in the top five in majors after the opening round, he’s gone on to win.

He said afterwards that he wasn’t aware of that impressive statistic. He does know, though, what it takes to go on and finish off the job from this position. “I have always felt comfortable up and around the lead,” he said. “It’s something I’m familiar with and I know how to deal with it.”

McIlroy talked in the build-up to this eagerly-anticipated event about how he planned to be a bit more “aggressive” in his play. That has yielded eight birdies so far, five of which have come at par-5s. “I feel I left a few out there and could have shot something in the 60s again, but I’m pretty pleased how I played,” he admitted. “It is just so tricky as the wind was swirling in the trees today,” he added of the conditions.

There’s a long way to go but the prospect of McIlroy and Spieth slugging it out over the final 36 holes is mouth-watering. Spieth, the 2015 winner and runner-up either side of that triumph, loves this place. It was rare to see him hitting out of the trees, as was the case at the first, but it tells you everything about the 24-year-old that he managed to pick himself up from that start.

“I said to Michael [Geller, his caddie] at the turn that if we could cover the back nine in two-under and get to four-under for the tournament, we should be within a couple of shots of the lead,” he revealed. Poor weather is forecast for the third round. Noting this, Spieth added: “It might just be a case of having to grind it out and level-par over the weekend might be good enough.”

Dustin Johnson, the world No 1, is lurking ominously. He was a red-hot favourite for this event 12 months ago before hurting his back in a fall and being unable to make it to the first tee. The 33-year-old looks in the mood to make amends for that unfortunate disappointment. His terrific 68 left him sitting on three-under, a shot ahead of Tony Finau. Finau’s Masters debut almost didn’t happen after he dislocated his ankle celebrating a hole-in-one in the Par 3 Contest but has managed to fire rounds of 68-74.

Others heading into the weekend in red figures include 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, 2015 Scottish Open winner Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose, who lost in a play-off to Sergio Garcia last year. They all completed 36 holes in two-under. Three-time winner Phil Mickelson was also on that mark – sharing the lead at the time – when he arrived on the ninth tee but was five-over by the finish. A triple-bogey 7 at the ninth, where he hit a tree and ended up in a bush, did the bulk of the damage in a 79.

“I don’t know what’s happened the last couple of days because I’ve been playing so well this year,” said Mickelson who, at the age of 47, came in here with high hopes of becoming the event’s oldest champion after a WGC win in Mexico earlier in the year.