By Tim Price, PGATOUR.COM Contributor
SAN ANTONIO -- If Rory McIlroy didn’t look out of place preparing for The Masters by coming to the Valero Texas Open while Tiger Woods stayed at his Florida home and Phil Mickelson settled for his trip to Houston, McIlroy sure looked like a bumbling tourist when he walked up the ninth fairway at TPC San Antonio to find an errant tee shot.
McIlroy tried to step over a cactus and got a lesson that South Texas cactus might be smaller than the ones that spike up through the Arizona desert, but they bite just as hard.
“I shouldn’t have been there anyways, so I guess it was deserved, getting a -- whatever it was -- off the cactus,” McIlroy said.
They call those things a needle. But McIlroy wasn’t at a loss for words to describe what he did over the final three holes at the AT&T Oaks Course to finish a round of 67 that has him at 5-under for the tournament, three shots back of Billy Horschel.
It was useful, certainly, after McIlroy took a swing thought from the range after his play yesterday to not bring the club back so much to the inside. He said it might be that one thing that clicks for the rest of the week and into next at Augusta.
McIlroy sank a 26-foot putt for birdie at No. 16, made a 12-footer for another one at 17 and reached the difficult 588-yard, par-5 18th in two after a 350-yard drive before watching a 25-foot eagle putt slide just by to put the cap on the 67 that puts him right back in the mix at the VTO.
“I definitely feel like I made the right decision to come here, and even if I hadn’t been in this position and have been a few shots back I’d still feel the same way,” McIlroy said. “I haven’t really been in contention this year. So it will be nice to get into the mix.”
Starting five shots back at even par, McIlroy was plodding along a front nine that is playing more than a half-stroke more difficult than the back when his driver at No. 9 sailed left. He advanced well enough to be close to the sharply elevated green so he could chip up, but the lack of green to work with left him with a long par putt he could not save.
It got quiet after a birdie at 11 sent him back to 2-under and gave him a safe cushion of making the cut (the number was projecting 1-over at the time), but the tee shot at the 16th (playing 166 yards today) was close to pin high and gave him a rather flat look that he converted.
He’s one of the few to hit 18 in two, and he was the first this week to hit the par-5, 592-yard eighth with a 325-yard tee shot and an approach of about 270 yards in that ended up 12 feet from the hole (he missed the eagle).
“I think that shows where my game is,” McIlroy said. “Those two par 5s are probably the toughest to hit in two with how small the greens are. It shows that my ball-striking is there. If I can keep hitting shots like that into par 5s, I’ll be doing OK.”
It would work at Augusta, for sure.