McIlroy does enough to keep Grand Slam hopes alive

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – You know what they say, you can’t win the career Grand Slam on Thursday at Augusta National.

Not that Rory McIlroy drop-kicked his career Grand Slam chances into the azalea bushes on Day 1 at the Masters, but his opening 71 under sunny skies in the first round certainly narrowed the margin of error in his historic pursuit.

In what turned out to be more of a battle than he would have liked, the world No. 1 chipped a few like Tiger Woods, hit a few iron shots like Natalie Wood and ended the day the way it began – a green jacket away from becoming the sixth player to win the career Grand Slam.

In a game that defies instant analysis, a single round is well short of an honest sample size when it comes to something as endearing as the career Grand Slam, but for many – maybe even McIlroy – Round 1 at Augusta National was a measure of how much pressure is seeping its way through Rory’s tightly confined circle.

When McIlroy pulled his drive at the second into the “Delta Counter” – the wooded area left of the fairway where lore has it that players can book their tickets out of town and out of contention – it prompted more than a few raised eyebrows.

When he bogeyed the sixth after hitting a chip that inched just onto the putting surface and then rolled back down the slope, some even wondered if he’d spent too much time near Woods this week in the short game area.

But on cue he did what potential Masters champions do, hitting a 322-yard drive at the 13th hole to set up a two-putt birdie and get back to even par.

A deft chip from right of the 15th green led to another birdie and left him under par for the day, if not under the radar.

“I haven't put too much pressure on myself. Look, I obviously know what I can achieve this week, but I'm not letting myself think about it too much,” said McIlroy, who hit 12 of 18 greens in regulation on Thursday and cut short his time with the media to work out the issues on the practice tee.

“Today was a pretty good day. I feel like I can do better. But happy after Day 1 and go out and just try and do a little bit better tomorrow.”

The truth is, the world No. 1 will have a lifetime of opportunities to etch his name into the history books and become the sixth player to win all four major championships. And most consider McIlroy’s quest an inevitability.

“With the type of length and ball-striking he has and putting touch, I think this is a course he'll be tough at the rest of his career,” said Phil Mickelson, McIlroy’s playing partner on Thursday, who also just happens to be one trophy shy of the career Grand Slam (U.S. Open). “I'm sure he'll win, whether it's this week or not, you never know.”

Still, history is littered with players who finished their careers one good bounce away from the career Grand Slam – Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson immediately come to mind – and of the five who do own the major four-pack, only Gene Sarazen secured the final leg at Augusta National, back in 1935 when this event went by the less-intimidating title of Augusta National Invitational.

“Rory has had his adversity on the golf course having led, so now he's got a big challenge,” said Gary Player, who completed the career Grand Slam when he was 29. “So he's going to feel that stretch, but he's ready to tackle it and very, very fit. I think fitness and patience.”

The fitness portion is not up for debate, as anyone who has glanced at the cover of this month’s Men’s Health can attest, but the patience portion of that equation is still to be determined.

While the current version is far more poised then the 2011 model that imploded on Sunday for a closing 80, evidenced by his Zen-like temperament in the last two majors, there has never been this much on the line.

“The only thing is the pressure,” Ernie Els said recently. “The pressure he puts on himself is one thing, but I think the outside pressure, the media is going to be scrutinizing him, so it depends on how he handles it. He’s got a little bit of fire in him, if he can control that I think he’ll have a good week. If things don’t go his way and he loses it, it will be tough.”

In many ways, Thursday was an interesting litmus test for the Northern Irishman. While most agree the immediacy of what he can accomplish is measured in decades, not days, there is no ignoring that a round that “could have gotten away from me” didn’t.

McIlroy didn’t win the career Grand Slam on Thursday, but somehow he seemed to move closer to that milestone.