AUGUSTA, Ga. – So I’m watching Rory McIlroy play the 16th. To do that, I’m standing behind a telephone exchange box with three beers sitting on top of it.
More precisely, I’m almost seeing Rory McIlroy play. He’s visible in the narrow space between beer cup 1 and beer up 2. He’s about 100 yards away and he disappears with every step he takes because a beer cup gets in the way. Such is life when you’re walking in the gallery trying to watch a man win the Masters.
Did I mention Stuart Redsell?
He’s on the other side of beer cup 3, which means that while I’m trying to watch Rory McIlroy win the Masters, I cannot help but watch the back of Stuart Redsell’s neck because he’s about 6-foot-3. It’s not easy to watch a man win the Masters. The crowds are huge. Friday’s crowd, I believe, included everyone living east of the Mississippi. They were all 6-foot-3 and standing in front of me.
“I think that the experience of playing around here so many times, I know what the ball is going to do and I know how it’s going to react," McIlroy said
Only Stuart Redsell, though, wore the Union Jack flag, which is to say a shirt and shorts designed to replicate the United Kingdom’s flag.
Being a crack investigative reporter and letting no obvious truth go unquestioned, I asked Redsell, “Does Ian Poulter know you stole his suitcase?”
I’d been watching McIlroy for two hours. It was a beautiful day, warm, puffs of cottony clouds in a bright blue sky, so breezy the tops of loblolly pines danced this way and that. On the walkway to the 10th green, I found a nice vantage spot. I could see the flagstick if I crouched under a magnolia tree. Under a woman’s Augusta-logo’d earring, I could see McIlroy in the fairway. About here, the tournament leader, Jordan Spieth, was six or seven shots up on everybody, including McIlroy, and I decided, because I wished it to happen, that McIlroy would win this Masters.
He had saved par at the 9th and 10th with nice up-and-downs. At the 11th, he stood atop the fairway knoll high above the green and hit a majestic shot. Not that I saw it. But I did see people looking into the sky and shielding their eyes against the sun with one hand while pointing with the other, as if they had seen Superman arriving. Alas, McIlroy three-putted there.
But he wasn’t much concerned. “It’s Augusta National,” he said, which is a player’s way of saying anything can happen and usually does. “I just needed to stay patient.” He knew the 13th and 15th were birdie holes, even on a breezy day playing into the breeze, a small deterrent to today’s players using rocket launchers disguised as drivers. At the 13th, for instance, McIlroy’s drive caused a man wearing a “Sooie Pig” cap (in from Arkansas) to exclaim, “Wow, whoa, dy-amn.”
The drive on the 484-yard par-5 left McIlroy 194 yards to the green from a sidehill lie that made the golf ball look like a waist-high pitch. He thought a 5-iron might not be enough. He hit a 4-iron that, to his surprise, came out hot, “like a 2-iron,” and rolled past the pin to the back fringe. From there, McIlroy got up and down for his first birdie since the third hole.
By then, Spieth had come off perfection a touch and his lead over McIlroy was three shots. At the 14th, the technician manning a laser that measured drives said McIlroy’s latest missile had come to rest 350 yards from the tee. An easy wedge to a flagstick set on a shelf above the green’s treacherous false front left McIlroy two putts for a par.
McIlroy could be patient. Some of us didn’t have that luxury. Some of us were in a hurry to find a men’s room. Such is life while watching Rory McIlroy try to win the Masters. There’s a men’s room way off the 15th green, hidden in a forest. I got in line. The line was long. At the building, the line curled back on itself four times, like a security check-in line at LaGuardia. In the building, an attendant named Patrick moved us along. “On the right . . . the right, right … one on the left, left, right,” meaning there were spaces open for our business on those sides of the building.
By then, McIlroy was on the 15th green. Otherwise occupied, I had no idea how he’d gotten there until I asked later. He reached the 524-yard par-5 in two, his second shot a 235-yard 5-wood that he knew would be too much club except he also knew it was the exact right club in Friday’s breezes: “I think that the experience of playing around here so many times, I know what the ball is going to do and I know how it’s going to react. It spun up for me and spun up into the wind and landed softly on the green and another two-putt birdie was nice.”
Then came the nicest shot of all, a 40-foot putt at the 16th. I saw it between beer cups and around Stuart Redsell’s neck.
From the top of the green, looking downhill, McIlroy figured two putts would be good. Get out of there, par in, be happy.
But things happen at Augusta National.
“I started it maybe six feet left of the hole and just got it up there, really, really high, and basically let gravity and wind take it the rest of the way,” McIlroy said. “I was just looking to two-putt, try to get it within two or three feet of the hole . . .”
Slowly, slowly rolling, moving right a bit, downhill, now turning right, now turning the last foot toward the hole . . .
“. . . and it was a bonus when it dropped.”
When the ball disappeared, I looked to see McIlroy’s reaction. I saw the Union Jack hopping up and down.
And Stuart Redsell, 41, a businessman from Kent, England, long a McIlroy acolyte, said, ”He might win it this time, yeah?”
He's now one shot behind.