At the halfway point of the 2018 Masters, Rory McIlroy's dream of completing the career Grand Slam is alive and well, but he will have to catch his 2016 Ryder Cup rival Patrick Reed, who holds a 2-stroke lead over Marc Leishman after signing for a 6-under 66.
On a day when the average field score was more than one stroke higher than Thursday, McIlroy battled swirling winds and posted a 1-under 71, good for a share of fourth place with American Jordan Spieth.
"I'm pretty pleased," McIlroy said. "I feel like I could've shot another round in the 60s, but anything under par was pretty good and I'm in a good position heading into the weekend."
McIlroy made three bogeys in his first six holes, but stayed patient and waited for his chances on the back nine. He took advantage of his length and made birdie at 13 and then rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt at 14.
This is McIlroy's 10th appearance at the Masters and the experience of past failures here and successes in winning four majors are serving him well. Just five holes into his round, McIlroy realized he would need to temper his aggressive game plan.
"After the sixth hole, I just said to myself, 'Fairways and greens will be good,' " McIlroy said. "In these conditions, pars are OK. Sometimes pars might be a little bit boring and you might feel as if you want to get a little bit more out of the your round, but as you look up the leaderboard and you're still there around the lead that's taken awhile for me to adjust to."
McIlroy needs only to win the Masters to become the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam, and join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in this exclusive club.
Reed, 27, and McIlroy engaged in one of the all-time Ryder Cup singles matches at Hazeltine National in 2016, with Reed coming out on top with a birdie on the final green. But Reed has yet to win a major, his best finish coming at the 2017 PGA Championship, where he finished tied for second.
The Augusta State product made birdie on half the holes on Friday, and is the only player in the field to birdie every par 5 through two rounds.
Leishman, 34, is his closest pursuer after a round of 67. The Australian witnessed what it takes to win here in 2013 when he played alongside champion Adam Scott.
"I just didn't take my opportunities when I got them. Whether it was not making a putt on 14 or, you know, hitting a shot into the water on 15," he said. "It's not going to come to you. You have to go out and win it."
Leishman did just that on Friday, hooding a 4-iron from 210 yards that just cleared the pond at 15. His ball kicked forward to 5 feet and he made the putt for eagle.
While Reed and Leishman are seeking their first major, the next five names on the leaderboard all have a major championship trophy on their mantle. The 2016 Open champion Henrik Stenson carded a 70 to reach 5 under while reigning Open champion Jordan Spieth struggled early and settled for a 74.
“What he did do was not let this tournament get completely away from him," said Golf Channel commentator Brandel Chamblee. "He dug down deep and played a beautiful back nine.”
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson made birdie on three consecutive holes beginning at 13 en route to 68 and is tied at 3 under with Justin Thomas, who kept his bid for a second straight major alive with a sizzling 67.
Tiger Woods (75) and Phil Mickelson (77), who made a triple bogey at 9, both moved backwards, but managed to make the cut at 5-over 147. Woods, who heads to the weekend at 4 over, blamed a balky putter and a lack of distance control with his irons for his uneven round that left him at 4 over for 36 holes. Woods still kept it in perspective.
"Six months ago I didn't know if I'd be playing golf. Forget playing at the Tour level, I didn't know if I ever be playing again. But it's incredible for have the opportunity again, to still come out here and play this golf course. Now I know I'm on the weekend. Even though I'm a lot behind, if I play a special weekend, shoot two rounds in the mid 60s, you never know. "
While Reed leads the way with a 36-hole aggregate of 9 under, inclement weather is expected on Saturday and it could change the complexion of the tournament. But that doesn't seem to concern Reed one bit.
"I am from Texas," he said. "It blows 40 and rains every day it seems like. I'd say I like it when it's challenging."