It’s lonely at the top. If he didn’t know that already, Rory McIlroy, the leader after three rounds at the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, will soon know it in his very competitive bones in a way that he will never forget.
Perched atop the leaderboard at 12-under and with a 4-shot lead, the consensus seems to be that all he as to do is shoot one or two under par to win his green jacket. Having serenely shot 65, 69, 70, it seems an easy ask. But there’s a pack of jackals just four shots behind him who will have something to say about that.
McIlroy will be playing with Argentina’s, Angel Cabrera, winner of the 2009 Masters, the 2007 U.S. Open and 17 International tournaments, who is at 8-under. I had an opportunity to see Cabrera play quite a bit in Phoenix this year; television does not begin to do justice to this man’s swing. At 6’0” and 210 lbs, he’s built like a burly longshoreman but with a catlike grace in his swing and short game. You can’t believe how good his swing is until you see it in person.
The next group back will be K.J. Choi and South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel, also at 8-under. I’ve written about Choi before, but maybe what captures it all was that he was paired with Tiger today and Tiger blinked. Choi only managed to shoot 1-under, but he stalked the course like the inscrutable weightlifter he used to be. World No. 29, Charl Schwartzel isn’t in this pairing by accident. He shot a smooth 4-under with just two bogeys. And he leads the field in putting.
The last of the 8-under pack is playing in the second to the last tee time. Aussie Jason Day will be paired with fellow Aussie, Adam Scott who is at 7-under. Day was presumably sobered by Saturday’s even par round after shooting a clean-card, 8-under on Friday. If he’s able to process what happened to him overnight and settle back down, McIlroy may need more than just a casual 2-under. Adam Scott has had a recent stretch of good play, perhaps finally living up to his longstanding promise. He’s gone to the long putter and now his results pretty well match up with his classic swing. He shot 5-under on the day.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think the jackals have a chance. McIlroy was snatched up for a post-round television interview for which I could not find a transcript. Asked if he was going to be intimidated by playing with a presence like Cabrera, he launched into a quiet, confident description of what got him to where he was.
He talked about not paying attention to anyone else because he couldn’t control what they were doing anyway. He could only control what he was doing. He was going to stick to his hole-by-hole, shot-by-shot plan. He was going to intently pay attention to each one of those shots and he was going to enjoy himself. He was going to be patient and not get ahead of himself. He said that he was going to be playing his own game, but that you had to expect some low rounds from a field as strong as those who remained were. But he would focusing 100% on his own game because that was the only thing that could make a difference.
Sounds like a winning game plan to me. But can he do it? In a tournament this big? Well, he has so far.
One last note. Later, in the interview room, someone in the press asked Jason Day about his assertion that one of the things he was trying to do in the first two rounds was “just have fun.” That strategy got him into that interview room, of course, but in the face of yesterday’s flat round and with today’s fateful round looming, the reporter wondered if it was time to start getting serious about things.
The reporter apparently does not yet understand that “just having fun” is not a frivolous lark devoid of conscientiousness, it is rather a state of consciousness that allows access to all that is great in us. He does not yet understand that coming to golf in a playful way, as a kid would, is in fact the very essence of the game. It opens up access to our curiosity, to the excitement in us, to our ability to see and execute, to our inquisitiveness: “What shall I do with this situation? Oh, this looks interesting. This looks fun. I wonder if I can carve this shot around that tree, over the bunker and stop it on the green?” The reason we can gain access to all of this is because, while there may still be nervous excitement, doubt and fear are crowded out. As an intuitive once told me, play like a kid but include your experience.
It’s going to be in the 90’s in Augusta today and it’s Mastery Sunday!
Ah, the ridiculously sublime Masters.