Rory McIlroy has been here before. At last year's Open Championship
at St Andrews he shot a swashbuckling 63 for the lead, before unravelling with
an 80 on a wind-ravaged second day.
They'll be no such battle with the elements at a still and humid Augusta on Friday, but the 21-year-old will have to manage a considerable weight
of expectancy to avoid a similar fate at the 75th Masters.
McIlroy's first-round 65 was matched only by Spain's big-hitting Alvaro Quiros on Thursday.
He made four birdies on the front nine, three on the back. And he didn't
drop a single shot.
This wasn't the gung-ho McIlroy we've seen blitz golf courses, and occasionally implode. This was a controlled, composed
performance that was most notable for the fact he was never really in trouble.
"I didn't really put a foot wrong - that's what you
need to do here and that's what you need to do in major championships is limit
your mistakes. Today I didn't have any," McIlroy said afterwards.
And with that he made his most convincing argument yet that
he's ready - ready to become the first Irishman to win The Masters, and the
first European to don the green jacket since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999.
To the big hair, big personality and big talent, McIlroy appears to have added the missing ingredient - a Majors mentality.
Precocious talent alone was never going to be enough at
Augusta, a golf course of such humbling powers that a moment of disaster is inevitable
at some point over the next three days. McIlroy needed a new maturity, and he might just have found it.
His seven-under-par opening round could have been lower had he not
grasped at a couple of putts late in his round. It could even have equalled the
tournament record of 63 shared by Nick Price (1986) and Greg Norman (1996).
But supporters of McIlroy's cause should be glad he didn't.
Leading The Masters is pressure enough, without making history, at a place where
history matters more than most.
He's unlikely to have it as smooth on Friday. The pins will be harder, the galleries bigger, and somewhere on the golf course trouble will find him.
How he reacts to adversity will tell us everything about whether McIlroy is ready to make a major statement on Sunday. But the way he went about his business on Thursday, you get the feeling he might just have the answers.
An Irishman in a green jacket. It really could happen.