AUGUSTA, Ga.-No matter how hard Rory McIlroy tries, nothing comes easily at Augusta National.
After 35 holes of grinding in arduous, wind-swept conditions, he had played himself into the mix for the green jacket he needs to complete the career Grand Slam. He stood in the middle of the 18th fairway with the ideal yardage and club in his hand. His shot from 140 yards cut through the breeze directly on line, only to clank off the flagstick and carom back 20 yards into the fairway. Return to sender.
"I thought it was perfect," McIlroy said. "It was a good number. I hit a really good shot, just a bit unfortunate."
McIlroy bumped his next shot to within four feet, but he pulled the par-saving attempt. He signed for a 73 that left him at one-over-par 143, five shots behind the foursome of Sergio Garcia, Rickie Fowler, Thomas Pieters and Charley Hoffman.
"I'm close enough. I knew anything around even par today was going to be decent," McIlroy said. "A little disappointed in what happened at the last there, but these things happen. If I can get off to a fast start tomorrow, a couple under through 3, I'll be right there."
With the wind whipping 25 mph, Rory's round, like most so far this week, was a wild ride.
He teed off under bright skies and in a stiff gale at 10:34 a.m. ET and promptly blasted his opening drive over the pines guarding the left side and into the 9th fairway. He launched his approach back over the trees and just short of the green, but failed to save par.
"He's finding places no one's found before," one salty spectator muttered from behind the green.
That fan undoubtedly remembers the Masters round that still hangs over McIlroy: his 2011 Sunday meltdown, where he began with a four-stroke lead and shot 80, punctuated by a snap-hook into the cabins left of the 10th fairway and a subsequent triple bogey.
He arrived at the 2nd tee on Friday toting not his driver, but a belt. The perplexed patrons watched quietly as Rors stood to the side of the tee box and clumsily peeled off a set of rain pants, the leg tangling in his spikes, and looped the belt over his gray slacks. Again, nothing comes easy for Rory at Augusta. But then he ripped his tee shot 393 yards around the corner at the par-5 and made birdie.
On the diabolical 5th hole, McIlroy's tee shot crashed into the gallery right of the fairway ropes, settling on a patch of gravel. After two stormy practice-round days, some of the spectator areas were soaked, so the grounds crew brought in Augusta's special blend of fine sand and stones, called "choker sand," to sprinkle over soggy spots. (You'll never notice these areas on TV because the mix is dyed Augusta green). McIlroy took one look at his ball and called for an official.
"I wasn't really sure how it was going to come out of that," he said. "I never played out of that stuff before."
The official hopped on his radio, and within a minute Andy McPhee, who in his day job serves as the European tour's head referee, buzzed over in a cart. McPhee peered at the ball from under the brim of his cowboy hat and told Rors he'd have to play it as it lay.
"O.K., no worries," McIlroy said.
Rory dug in, spikes crunching on the tiny pebbles, and hit one of his best shots of the tournament, a towering draw from 215 yards that settled 12 feet below the hole. He knocked in the putt.
"It came out really good," he said. "It came out with a nice little bit of spin, and that was a bonus to make 3 after that tee shot."
McIlroy poured in another birdie on 6, and suddenly, after being three over through 12 holes on Thursday, he was under par for the tournament. But he drove it deep into right-side trees on 9, had to punch out and made bogey. He hit just five of 14 fairways on the day.
Both of his drives on the back-nine par 5s found the trees, and he settled for par, which for a power hitter is like making bogey. But McIlroy canned a 12-footer for birdie on 17, punctuated by a fist pump, and stepped to the last tee at even par. Then came the bad break.
Still, he enters the weekend within striking distance. With temperatures forecast to climb and the wind expected to calm, he knows he'll need to come out firing.
"A couple of years ago I shot 10 under par on the weekend, and Jordan [Spieth] was just too far ahead," McIlroy said. "And there have been other times where I've shot bad weekends and went the other way. Anything is possible out there. But I feel I'm playing well enough, and I'm in a good frame of mind where I can go out there and attack."