It’s not often a golfer describes the lie of his golf ball as “a sea of pink.”
That can happen at Augusta National with the breadth of azaleas that dominate the landscape.
So there was Rory McIlroy in the third round of the Masters on Saturday, chasing the only major championship the still eludes him, when his approach shot to the par-5 13th hole went long of the green and settled amid the colorful shrubbery.
This is when McIlroy turned botanist.
“I was lucky just to see the ball and I had a stance,” McIlroy said. “Azaleas are actually pretty thin down below. They look pretty think up top, but down below they are not too bad. I could take a stance and get the club straight up and get it back down on top of (the ball). Just tumble it out back out of the pine straw and through the grass.”
McIlroy saved par on the hole and went on to a bogey-free round of 7-under 65. He will be in the final pairing Sunday with Patrick Reed, the Ryder Cup nemesis he trails by three strokes. McIlroy rode luck on more than one occasion during the day. He saved par on No. 5 when his fairway bunker shot hit the lip and spun close to the pin. He chipped in for eagle on No. 8. There were the dramatics at No. 13. He had up-and-downs for a birdie and pars on Nos. 15, 16 and 17, respectively. His drive on No. 18 hit a tree and landed in the fairway so that he could sink a 17-foot birdie putt.
“I rode my luck out there today and hopefully I don’t have to do it tomorrow,” McIlroy said.
The wayward shot into No. 13 was hindered by the brief heavy rain that hit Saturday. While weather forecasts were gloomy, Augusta escaped save for intermittent rain. McIlroy said he rushed the second shot. When it landed in the azaleas, a place he’s been before, he hoped just for a bogey six. He did one better.
McIlroy is in position to chase down Reed and win the Masters, a victory that would give him the career Grand Slam. He was sure not to make too much of what was on the line as he noted that Reed would be playing for his first major and he would be playing “for something else.”
It was in 2011 when McIlroy famously blew up with a chance to win the Masters. He led after the first three rounds, including a four-stroke advantage heading into Sunday. A final-round 80 cost him his first major.
McIlroy would recover. He won the 2011 U.S. Open, the 2012 and 2014 PGA Championships and the 2014 British Open. Circle back now to the Masters. The win he needs to become the sixth to have won all four majors joining Gene Sarazan, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
“I’ve been waiting for this chance, to be honest,” McIlroy said. “I’ve always said that 2011 was a huge turning point in my career. It was the day that I realized I wasn’t ready to win major championships and I needed to reflect on that and realize what I needed to do differently. I’m ready.”
McIlroy said most of the pressure may be on Reed, as he holds the lead.
“I am leading,” Reed said after he shot 5-under-par 67 on Saturday. “I mean, I guess so. But at the same time, he's trying to go for the career Grand Slam. You can put it either way.”