First man on the course on Saturday has plenty to ponder after suffering yet another mid-round implosion
Jefferson Knox was his name. Opportunity Knox, they now call him. As if this Masters Tournament were not galling enough for Rory McIlroy, Europe’s most gifted player was outscored by a 51-year-old Augusta National club member who was there to make up the numbers on Moving Day.
In leaderboard terms Saturday’s first pairing was a marker and a no-marker, as McIlroy, the last man to make the cut and 11 shots off the lead, suffered the indignity of having to go around with an ace green jacket who appears to know every inch of this course. McIlroy shot 71. Knox came home in 70.
“Jeff was a great player and beat me by one,” McIlroy admitted by the side of the 18th green. “I thought he was going to be nice and three-putt the last so we could have a nice half. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone putt the greens as well. I was thinking of getting him to read some of mine. He looked like he should be playing in the Masters.”
Behind the grace and levity, McIlroy will be mortified. Or should be. Only when humiliation was bearing down on him with five holes left did he fight back. He birdied 15, 17 and 18 after falling to six-over par from his overnight score of four-over.
Tournament rules dictate that no man can traverse the Georgian Arcadia alone, so Knox, a highly capable 'bandit’ who looks like a slightly younger Tom Watson, was called on to play the priest to McIlroy’s tortured star.
It was not meant to be this way. McIlroy’s first round of 71 put him in contention for the green jacket. His second – a safari through the Augusta undergrowth – left him needing to hole a devilish six-footer just to make the cut. With his third, he would have lost 4 & 3 in match play.
The sight of him hunched over his putter with his Masters hopes in the balance was the last image of Friday night. It stirred misgivings. The defending champion, Adam Scott, had fought his way back into the tournament after a front-nine wobble. McIlroy had bombed off the leaderboard after over-clubbing at the par-three fourth. At the 13th his approach shot veered left, bounced off a water cannon and turned him into the human face of a giant azalea bouquet as he stared out from the bushes.
Not meant to be like this. The doubts, the accusations, started swirling again. Why can McIlroy not battle his way back into a round? Is he a calm-water sailor?
On Augusta local radio they joked: “Anyone can go into the azaleas at 13. But only the members who are sleeping there at night go into the cabins on 10,” – a reference to his infamous blow-up when he was leadingin 2011.
Friday’s reverse-lurch reduced him to a ceremonial figure on the tee at 10.15am, four and a half hours before the leader Bubba Watson went out. Bad luck, excuses, or congenital weakness when things go wrong?
Questioning the intestinal fortitude of a 24-year-old two-time major winner is not something many of us would be inclined to do without the requisite expertise or incontrovertible evidence. Undeniable, though, is that when things start going wrong for him in a big round they tend to keep going wrong. Three birdies on the back nine on Saturday ought to have been five.
In a recent interview McIlroy was asked to comment on the proposition that he and Tiger Woods are markedly different characters. “Oh yeah, for sure,” he said. “I can’t bring the intensity he brings to it every week. He can sort of turn it on, which is impressive. It’s something that I struggle to do sometimes.
“Though I can generally bring it to the big events where I really want to do well [five top-three finishes in Majors so far, including two wins], I would find it very difficult to do it every week. That’s why I’ve cut down on my schedule this year [to an expected 26 tournaments] and will probably cut it to a maximum of 22 or 23 next year.”
He has moaned a lot here: the greens, the wind, bad bounces. Maybe as he matures he will learn to avoid explanations that make him feel less bad about himself and develop more of a ruthless urge to make amends for bad holes and rounds; to forget and to respond quicker.
“I’m just not getting anything out of my game at the moment, or at least today,” he said on Friday. Sounding like Marvin Gaye, he lamented “bad breaks” and setbacks.
Walking with Knox, he birdied the second but bogeyed three and seven to shoot a one-over par 37 for the front nine before bogeying 10 as well.
Last year, Knox played with Bubba Watson on the Saturday and Keegan Bradley a day later. In 2006 he reportedly struck a side bet while playing with Sergio Garcia and won. Garcia’s face, by all accounts, was thunder.
McIlroy’s partner is no committee dodderer. In 2002, off the members’ tee, he shot a course record 61. According to The Guardian, Knox first received the call to make up the numbers in 2003, when he was twice paired with and defeated the 1982 champion Craig Stadler.
Three years later, after outdriving Miguel Ángel Jiminez on the 1st tee, Jiminez grinned, wagged his finger and said “Don’t you dare outdrive me.”
This is the Masters, not Caddyshack, but the 2011 US Open and 2012 USPGA champion can have no complaints. He was meant to fill the stardust gap left by Woods. A 30 per cent drop in TV viewing figures is hardly likely to be rectified by Rory McIlroy losing a round to abandit.