(Photo: Getty Images)
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- So let's try this again. After playing with the lead each day in the 2011 Masters, only to shoot an 80 in a Sunday collapse of painful proportions, Rory McIlroy goes into this weekend at Augusta National one stroke off the lead and giving every indication he has learned a lot from last year -- perhaps enough to win.
So it's Rory vs. the Masters, The Sequel. This should be fun to watch. As Bette Davis, in role of the character Margo Channing in "All About Eve," said: "Fasten your seat belts, we're in for a bumpy night."
Only this time, McIlory just may be able to bring the plane in for a much-smoother landing. Appearing wise beyond his years and possessing an emotional control that is impressive for anyone, Rory looks like he has the right stuff to take a green jacket back to the Emerald Isle.
This time, things may play out a little better. Certainly, there are precious few ways in which it could be worse, although that dire prospect seemed possible when the nightmare that was last year's final round -- a triple bogey on No. 10 and a four-putt double bogey on the next hole -- carried over to this year's first round.
But after a double bogey on No. 1 on Thursday, the 22-year-old U.S. Open champ has been rock solid. He battled back in the first round to save a 71 and on Friday, McIlroy toured Augusta National in 69 strokes to move to four under, just one stroke off the lead.
The concern for those in the field who made the cut has to be this: What if that 71 on Thursday was McIlroy's bad round for the week? What if Rory did what great golfers do and turned a 75 into a 71? That's what made it possible for him to get back into contention on Friday, and the young man fully appreciates his accomplishment.
"The whole round yesterday was important to me," McIlroy said Friday, showing impressive calm as he dissected his play this year and dealt with difficult questions about last year. "That's not the way I wanted to start," he said about opening his Masters with a double, "but I'm proud of how I hung in there." As well he should be.
And that can pretty much be said about the entire way McIlroy has handled the 12 months since his Masters meltdown. He came back to win the next major -- the U.S. Open at Congressional -- and cruised into Augusta this year in full control of his emotions. Now he once again has a chance to win here, despite what he says.
"I wouldn't say I'm in a position to win yet," McIlroy said, taking great care that no cart gets before any horse. "We'll see what happens tomorrow. I'm in a nice position and I definitely would have taken it after the start yesterday."
While Thursday was a struggle for Rory, Friday was a much neater round. He went out in 33 and gutted out a great up-and-down on the last hole to keep from finishing bogey-bogey. Those are the kind of momentum-saving moments that win championships.
"I drove the ball better, that was the big thing," McIlroy said about the difference between Thursday and Friday. "When you drive the ball well here you can be a little more aggressive."
And when Rory is driving the ball well, he hits it as long and straight off the tee as anyone playing the game, feathering a power draw into the fairway. That's part of why he played the four par-5 holes three-under par in the second round. He simply overwhelmed them.
McIlroy says he had a terrible temper as a junior golfer but he shows no sign of that now. Even when he was collapsing last year, Rory reacted to bad shots more with embarrassment than with anger. He's said he's learned that anger leads to bad decisions, a lesson it often takes competitive players decades to learn.
Among those McIlroy trails headed into the weekend at Augusta National is Fred Couples, the 52-year-old Champions Tour member who won the Masters 20 years ago - when Rory was two years old. Couples shot a 67 on Friday and was one stroke ahead of McIlroy at five under par.
"He's just so cool," McIlroy said when asked why Freddie remains competitive, especially here at Augusta National. "I hope I'm that cool when I'm 52." That's a goal he is on his way to achieving.
From the way he has acted through his disappointment here last year, to the way he handled his success at Congressional, it seems like Rory already has that cool, a quality that now gets a test under the heat of major championship.
-- Ron Sirak