Masters great gives Rory McIlroy glimpse of what green jacket means

AUGUSTA, Ga. — It was a pairing that perfectly embodies the Masters and its enduring traditions.

Rory McIlroy and Bernhard Langer played the third round together Saturday at Augusta National, a Masters green jacket in the balance and both on the cusp of contention.

McIlroy is a 31-year-old in his prime, Langer a 63-year-old who on Saturday became the oldest player ever to make the cut at the Masters.

McIlroy has what Langer still wishes he still had: length.

But, of much more importance, Langer has what McIlroy wants more than anything in his professional life: a green jacket.

Langer won the Masters in 1985 and 1993. He has a spot of his own in the Champions Locker Room, where his green jacket hangs. And he has an invite to the tournament every year for the rest of his life, a place-setting at the annual Champions Dinner.

McIlroy, who’s already won the U.S. Open (twice), a PGA Championship and a British Open, would take one green jacket. If — some believe when — McIlroy wins one, he would join five legends of the sport as the only men ever to complete a career Grand Slam: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.

McIlroy, on a brilliant sunny Saturday, shook off his dodgy opening-round 75 Thursday and followed it with a second-round 66 and a 5-under 67 in the third round to claw back to 8-under for the tournament.

Unfortunately for the affable Northern Irishman who recently became a father for the first time, that opening round stumble left him with too steep a hill to climb. He’s too far back from the lead held by Dustin Johnson, who on Saturday looked like he was getting ready to run away and hide, shooting a 7-under 65 and leading at 16-under.

“I have zero thoughts about winning this golf tournament right now,’’ McIlroy said. “I think I’ve left myself too far back after the bad first day, but I’ll go and give it a good effort [Sunday] and see where that leaves me.’’

He conceded that, at tournament’s end, he’ll “look back at [the first round] and rue some of the shots that I hit and some of the thought processes I had and just try to learn from it and be better the next time.’’

His past two rounds have shown McIlroy what was possible this week, what he left on the table.

“Yeah, 11 under for the last two days, I think that sort of speaks for itself,’’ he said. “The good golf was in there, I just didn’t allow myself to play that way on the first 18 holes. This course can do that. This course can make you a little bit careful and a little bit tentative at times.

“I’ve always said I play my best golf when I’m trusting and freer, and I’ve been a lot freer over the last 36 holes.’’

Langer plays free, because he has zero to lose. He’s already got his two Masters victories and all the spoils that come with it. This week is an annual treat for him.

“I hope to make the cut [every year],’’ he said. “But it’s getting longer and longer, especially this year. I don’t think the course has ever played this long. I don’t remember hitting 3-woods into so many par 4s … and hybrids. I mean, on 17, I hit a beautiful drive and I hit 2 hybrid. Rory hit driver and pitching wedge, I think. That’s what I’m competing against.

Langer estimated McIlroy’s tee shots were “some 40, sometimes 80 or 100’’ yards beyond his.

When those numbers were relayed to McIlroy, he joked, “I’d like to know where the 40 was.’’

Ouch.

Turning serious, McIlroy marveled at the ageless Langer.

“I try to think about what scores I would shoot if I was hitting it where he hit it,’’ McIlroy said. “Honestly, it’s like me playing an 8,500-yard golf course. That’s what it’s like. It’s so impressive, just the way he methodically plots his way around and gets it up and down when he needs to. It’s really cool to watch.

“I wish in 30 years’ time I’m back here doing the exact same thing.’’

The thing is, he’ll need to win one of those green jackets to be invited back in 30 years’ time.

“Of course, you want to be part of that for the rest of your life if you can,’’ McIlroy said. “Winning the Masters would be cool, winning the Grand Slam would be cool. There’s a lot of great things that come along with that, but at the end of the day you have to try to simplify it as much as you can. It’s just a golf tournament, and you’re playing against guys you see every week.

“It shouldn’t be that different.’’

Except that it is.

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