AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Like all first-timers at the Masters, Jason Day was hoping someone could show him the secrets to getting around Augusta National.
What the 23-year-old Australian did not know, was that his teacher would be even younger than him.
Day was placed in the same group as Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy and American Rickie Fowler for the first two rounds at Augusta National.
They are three of the hottest young players in the game and the galleries flocked to see them but no-one really expected to see the inexperienced trio tear up the course. Not only do they hit the ball well, they are some of the quickest learners.
McIlroy, the only one of the threesome who had played the Masters before, showed how much he had learned when he shot 65 on the first day to share the overnight lead.
Day and Fowler both studied him closely and came out on Friday armed with all the confidence and knowledge they needed to start their climb up the leaderboard.
McIlroy made a 69 to grab the halfway lead. Fowler also shot 69 to be tied for seventh, but it was Day who stole the show, shooting an eight-under 64 that was just one shot off the championship record to be outright second.
“I learned a lot from Rory’s game yesterday, where he placed some of his shots,” Day said. “It’s amazing. I‘m surprised that he’s 21, because he’s very, very mature for his age.”
Day’s round included a bit of everything. He drove long and straight, scrambled well whenever he was in trouble and drained some long and crucial putts.
He is playing in only his third major but has already shown he can be a contender, finishing tied for 10th at last year’s PGA Championship.
Day conceded that his lack of experience in the majors could work against him over the weekend but said he would not change his aggressive approach and the fact he would paired with McIlroy again was comforting.
“I‘m not going to back down because I’ve got lack of experience,” said Day, bidding to become the first Australian to wear the winner’s green jacket.
“I‘m just going to go out there and try and stick to my game plan and not worry about the score. Like Rory said before, you have to play the course, you’re not playing the leaderboard.”
Day won his first PGA Tour title last year and finished the season ranked 21st on the U.S. money list, and his performances were all the remarkable because he was suffering from a mystery illness that baffled doctors and left him drained of strength.
Some doctors thought he was suffering from the viral infection mononucleosis, also known as “kissing disease”, others suspected he had Lyme disease, but tests were inconclusive.
The result was that Day had to curb his natural enthusiasm on the course to conserve every ounce of energy.
There were no high-fives or fist pumps whenever he did anything spectacular, just a wry smile or a simple nod to the crowd. He insists he is not an introvert but his subdued manner ensured he kept a low-profile compared to McIlroy and Fowler.
“I said to Rory and Rickie this morning when we were walking up the first hole, ‘I‘m going to have to start paying people to yell my name out because everyone is yelling their name out’,” Day joked.
“It got a bit better on the back nine which was nice. The atmosphere was great and all three of us played wonderful.”
Editing by Larry Fine