Day, the world No 1, didn’t really do enough to haul himself into the picture heading into the weekend, but McIlroy certainly did. It was a bit of a struggle for the player bidding to become just the sixth man to complete golf’s career Grand Slam, but then everyone, including Spieth, had their work cut out in a blustery wind.
Helped by three birdies in the last six holes, McIlroy signed for a one-under 71 to set the clubhouse target on three-under. At that point, he led by a shot from Kiwi Danny Lee (68-74) and American Scott Piercy (70-72). Another home player, Brandt Snedeker, was sitting a shot back along with Dane Soren Kjeldsen. Having made two birdies early on, Spieth’s cushion had increased to six before he four-putted the fifth and, finally, began to look human on this golf course. All in all, it was adding up to be a good day for McIlroy. “You just have to look at the scores to see how tough it was out there,” said the world No 3. “You are going to be very happy with anything under par in that wind and some of the pin positions and I’m in a good position going into the weekend.”
Third-ranked McIlroy had some good early momentum – back-to-back birdies at the second and third – halted by a double-bogey 5 at the fourth. It may be a par-3 but measures 240 yards. It’s a brute. Bunkered with his tee shot, the Northern Irishman three-putted from 20 feet, missing from seven feet with the second one. Yet, his pace-putting had been spot on two holes earlier.
Earlier in the week, the four-time major winner said he’d come up with a new strategy for the par-5 second, which was hitting a 3-wood to stay short of the bunker at the top of the hill. With the wind helping, out came the driver. He boomed one 350 yards, leaving an iron into the green at the 575-yarder. The two-putt from long range constituted a nice start, especially after he’d displayed a lovely touch to save par after missing the green on the right at the first. A six-footer was then despatched for a birdie at the third only for the good work to soon be undone. The double was followed by bogeys at the fifth and the 11th before he burst into life again. Just as pleasing as birdies at the 13th, 15th and 16th, where he holed from close to 40 feet, was a great par save from the trees at the last.
“I got off to a fast start and that was important,” he admitted. “After then dropping some shots, I knew I needed to stay patient and try to birdie the par-5s on the back nine. The putt at the 16th was a bonus while it was a great up and down at the last. I’m definitely feeling better right now than I did when I finished yesterday (after dropping two shots in the last three holes).”
Eight behind after starting with a bogey, Day was also starting to build up a head of steam as he turned for home just four off the pace. Then it began to go wrong for players who came into this event sitting either side of Spieth in the world rankings. Day, the world No 1, let shots slip at the 11th and 13th. The back nine has not exactly been his friend so far this week. Out in five-under 31 on Thursday, the 28-year-old Australian went from breathing down Spieth’s neck to sitting in the pack after going 6-6-5 from the 15th.
After finishing with a bogey, Day signed for a 73 for a one-over-par halfway total. He’s seven-under for the front nine; eight-over for the back. “It’s no good,” he said of the latter before giving an insight into how difficult the overall challenge was proving due to the blustery conditions.
“There’s not too many times where I’m standing on a golf course and you have to aim a putt for wind,” added Day. “That tells you how gusty it is in some parts, then on other parts when you’re kind of hidden and don’t feel it at all. It’s really hard to commit to a lot of the golf shots out there and you got to be very mentally strong to be able to do that. Hopefully I can get the back side like the front side. If I can do that then I can kind of start leap‑frogging some guys.”
Ian Poulter was another who found reverse gear when he was looking to move upwards. The Englishman followed an opening 69 with a 78 that proved fruitless in terms of birdies. “I am disappointed because I tried to come out fast this week, which I did yesterday but have backed today,” said Poulter, who produced his best performance here when finishing sixth 12 months ago.
He learned a painful lesson about how this course can be so punishing. “It wasn’t as tough as yesterday, but margins for error on this golf course are really slim,” added the 40-year-old. “You are always on edge on this golf course, especially when this wind is blowing. You don’t have to do too much to find trouble. It’s tough, but that’s why we love this golf course. I walk off and shoot six over par but I still love this golf course because it has given me what I deserved today, which is a right kick in the nuts.”
Bubba Watson, pictured, the champion in 2012 and 2014, looked set to miss the cut here for the first time in eight appearances after a brace of 75s. “Very disappointing,” groaned Watson. “The golf course beat me this year. This is the toughest conditions I’ve seen here and I’ve got to get better in the wind around this golf course.” He refused to blame sinus trouble for his shock early exit. “It affected me, but if I was in perfect health, I probably still could have missed the cut,” he added.
On the 25th anniversary of his win here, Ian Woosnam revealed it was the end of the road for him in this event. The 58-year-old announced his decision after struggling his way to rounds of 82 and 81 on his 28th appearance at Augusta National. “That’s my last go,” he declared. “I am not fit enough to play with my bad back. I have ankylosing spondylitis and I can’t play with all the slopes here.”