Grand Slam quest: Rory McIlroy staying positive, in contention at Masters after first-round 71

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AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Sometimes you need to catch a break or two to win a major.

Rory McIlroy got one on Thursday when his tee shot hit a tree on the ninth hole at Augusta National and kicked out into the middle of fairway, giving him a workable second shot. McIlroy saved par and used that momentum to shoot 71, his first sub-par opening round at the Masters since 2018.

All of which came as a surprise to the world’s No. 2 player.

“Is it? That’s sort of embarrassing if it is,” McIlroy said. “I kept it together today. I stuck to my game plan. Didn’t birdie two of the par 5s on the back, which was a little disappointing. But getting in in red numbers was decent.”

In so doing, the 34-year-old McIlroy left himself in contention to complete the career Grand Slam that has eluded him for nearly a decade.

There’s plenty of work to do.

McIlroy trails Bryson DeChambeau by six shots and playing partner and world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler by five, but he’s staying positive and a solid back nine in windy conditions suggested McIlroy might have a chance to compete for a green jacket.

That would be a welcome change for McIlroy, who has been no higher than tied for 31st after the first round over the past five Masters.

The huge deficits have forced the Northern Irishman to press at times, which hasn’t always worked out well. He missed the cut in 2020 and 2022 after second rounds of 74 and 77.

So, yes, he’ll take 1 under.

“There’s a long way to go, and not to panic,” McIlroy said. “Everyone is going to make bogeys this week, and it’s just a matter of when you do, resetting and sticking to your game plan.”

McIlroy’s friendly tree carom on No. 9 wasn’t his only bit of luck.

He also found the trees on the par-4 seventh hole, but the ball ended up in a spot that gave him a clear second shot. He made par.

“You sort of need to ride your luck a little bit here and there, but hopefully I don’t need to get any lucky bounces from here on out,” McIlroy said. “Hopefully I can just keep hitting fairways.”

The 34-year-old McIlroy has spent nearly the past decade searching for a way to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods as the only players to complete the modern Grand Slam.

Six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus believes McIlroy is “too talented” not to win a green jacket and complete the slam.

But then again, Nicklaus pointed there have been great players who never won all four majors, for whatever reason.

“I mean, was Tom Watson good enough to win the Grand Slam? Absolutely,” Nicklaus said. “Was Arnold Palmer good enough to win the Grand Slam? Absolutely. Is Rory McIlroy good enough to win the Grand Slam, absolutely, but they have got to do it, and they all know that.”

Nicklaus believes the more time passes, the harder it will be for McIlroy to complete the task given the pressure involved.

“As he gets older, it gets tougher because all of a sudden it’s a conversation and the talk,” Nicklaus said.

For now, McIlroy just wants to post a good number on Friday and keep smiling and not focus on what scores other players are shooting.

He’s been listening to an audio book called “Outwitting the Devil” by Napoleon Hill leading up to the tournament.

When asked how you outwit the devil, McIlroy smiled and said, “positivity.”

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AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf

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