WATCH - McIlroy sinks monster putt to close in on Masters lead
Rory McIlroy fired a sparkling round of 71 in tough conditions at Augusta as he finished day two a single shot behind leader Jordan Spieth at the 80th Masters.
Seeking a first green jacket in order to complete the career grand slam, McIlroy's chances looked slim when he followed two early birdies with a double bogey on the fourth and bogeys on the fifth and 11th.
At that stage he was eight shots behind Spieth after the world number two birdied the first and third in pursuit of becoming just the fourth player after Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods to successfully defend the year's first major championship.
However, Spieth who set records for the highest number of birdies (28) and lowest 36 and 54-hole totals in Masters history last year, then four-putted the fifth from 50 feet run up a double bogey, bringing back unhappy memories of doing the same on the eighth hole in the final round of the Open at St Andrews last year.
A birdie on the eighth looked to have steadied the ship, but Spieth then bogeyed the ninth and 10th and was visibly - and audibly - annoyed at being timed for slow play as he wanted to wait for the wind to die down on his approach to the 11th.
McIlroy took full advantage with birdies on the 13th, 15th and 16th (below) and the fist pump when he saved par from the trees on the 18th told its own story.
US Amateur champion Bryson DeChambeau, who was playing alongside Spieth, had birdied the 11th and 12th to join McIlroy on three under, whose 71 equalled the lowest score of the day and left him one ahead of Danny Lee and Scott Piercy, who were also safely in the clubhouse.
"It was very difficult," McIlroy told ESPN. "It's very hard to select a club. On the 12th tee I felt a little lull in the wind and hit it straight away. Once you get it where you feel it you have to hit it and trust it which is the hardest thing out there. I think anything under par today is a very good score.
"I definitely feel like I am coming in with not as much hype or anticipation as last year. You have Jordan as defending champion, Jason (Day) getting to number one off a couple of wins, Adam (Scott) having a couple of wins - I felt I was just part of the narrative instead of just being the narrative and I like that position.
"I feel great. I feel so much better than I did yesterday. I played the last three holes on two over and today I played last six holes in three under today so I am really happy with how I battled and ground it out and I'll have to do the same tomorrow."
McIlroy had stressed the need for a good start earlier this week and was delighted to be in such a good position after a round he rated as one of his best at Augusta.
"It's up there," he added. "I kept my composure and I played the shots when I needed to. It's only the second day, there's still two days to go, but it's a great round and it's nice to be up there near the lead going into the weekend here instead of on the cut line and having to battle back where I found myself the last couple years. I'm happy with where I'm at."
The 26-year-old, who closed with rounds of 68 and 66 last year and has a scoring average of 68.5 on the weekend in 2014 and 2015, added: "If I can have a weekend like I did that last weekend, I'd be very happy.
"Obviously with the position I was in last year going into the weekend, there wasn't much pressure.
"You could go out there and free-wheel it a little bit and try to make as many birdies as you could and the conditions were more benign, so you could go after the course a bit more.
"But I've played this golf course well on the weekend the last couple years, and I have to take confidence from that.
"Hopefully it's a third year in a row and a third weekend in a row where I can post a couple of good scores and see where that leaves me at the end of the week."
Ireland's Shane Lowry struggled in the windy conditions as he fired a four over par round of 76 to finish on even par, four off the lead.
Yet it is the showdown between Spieth and McIlroy in the final pairing on Saturday that will now have the sporting world transfixed on the drama at Augusta.