For McIlroy, familiar Masters territory

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Only the beauty of the course can surpass the attractiveness of a leaderboard that has among its many names two players separated by 30 years in age.

Augusta National has a way of bringing out the best in its veteran champions, and it certainly is a place where Rory McIlroy, save for one very high-profile round, has learned to excel.

So it was that McIlroy put himself in position again at the place where he had so much heartbreak a year ago while helping set up an intriguing weekend at the Masters.

Among those he will be chasing is 52-year-old Fred Couples, who won his lone green jacket 20 years ago when McIlroy was a 2-year-old in Northern Ireland. That's too early for McIlroy's memory, but he can nonetheless size up Couples pretty easily.

"He's just cool,'' McIlroy said. "I hope I'm that cool when I'm 52, or whatever he is. He's just a cool guy. And he's good fun. I've gotten to know him a little bit over the last couple of years. He's laid-back and relaxed and just a really nice guy.''

McIlroy, of course, is cool in his own way, already into his fifth year as a pro with a major championship trophy on his mantel and gunning for more.

His Sunday struggles here a year ago have been detailed and dissected, and he famously came back to win the U.S. Open seven weeks later in a romp. And here he is again at the Masters, a shot back of leaders Couples and Jason Dufner, in position again.

"Yeah, it's nice,'' said McIlroy, whose 3-under-par 69 put him in a tie for third. "I wouldn't say I'm in a position to win yet, but we'll see what happens tomorrow. It will definitely be nice to feel like I'm in a good position going into Sunday.

"But it's good. I feel like I've played solid golf the last two days, and could have been a couple shots better, like probably everyone in the field is thinking. But I'm in a nice position and I definitely would have taken it after the start yesterday.''

McIlroy opened the tournament with a double-bogey 6 on Thursday, but battled back and finished with a 71 by birdieing the final two holes.

On Friday, birdies at the second, third and seventh holes had him moving up the leaderboard, and after a bogey at the 10th, birdies at the 13th and 15th had him tied for the lead. McIlroy bogeyed the 17th, then saved par at the 18th with a nice up and down.

Now playing in his fourth Masters, McIlroy is learning his way around Augusta National.

"He's probably the polar opposite to me,'' said countryman Graeme McDowell. "If I dislike this golf course, he absolutely loves it. It's tailor-made for the way he hits it, but I hear he's struggling a bit off the tee this week with a draw. But if he gets driving it the way he can, it sets up a lot of chances on these fairways. So good to see him playing well and no surprise obviously and hope he keeps it going.''

McIlroy did admit some difficulty drawing the ball as he would like, but he's managed to hit 26 of 36 greens. And he felt better about the way he drove the ball on Friday to put himself amid an interesting leaderboard.

Dufner lost in a playoff at last year's PGA Championship. Couples' last victory on the PGA Tour came 10 years ago, but he did win two weeks ago on the Champions Tour.

Along with McIlroy a shot back are 2010 British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen, world No. 3 Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Bubba Watson.

There are 18 players within 3 strokes of the lead.

"I feel like Saturday is the day you can really make a move,'' said Phil Mickelson, whose 68 put him at 2 under, just 3 shots back of the leaders. "Sunday you kind of cherish the back nine and it's exciting, but I feel like Saturday is the day you have got to play well to get yourself in position.''

McIlroy knows it well, because this is seemingly the new normal for him. Since the PGA Championship, where he suffered a wrist injury during the first round of play in August, McIlroy has played 12 world-ranking tournaments and been out of the top five just once. And there he finished 11th.

During that span, he has two victories, including a win last month at the Honda Classic, where he went to No. 1 in the world before Luke Donald took it back and relegated him to second. He has nine top-three finishes in that stretch and is seemingly making it look easy.

"I wouldn't say it's as easy as it looks, but it's nice that it looks routine and it's great to be able to put yourself in position most weeks that you play,'' McIlroy said. "But I think that just comes down to hard work and practice and really trusting yourself and trusting your swing all the time. I feel like I've improved a lot as a player over the last 12 months, and I think that showed in how I've played this year, and obviously at the end of last year, as well.''

A year ago, McIlroy led after each of the first three rounds here, including taking a 4-shot advantage into the final round.

Early on that day, he missed a couple of makeable putts that ratcheted up the pressure that finally suffocated him on the back nine, where he shot 43 to finish in 80 strokes -- going from the lead to a tie for 15th.

Much obviously has changed since then.

One of his playing competitors in the first two rounds was Angel Cabrera, who won the 2007 U.S. Open and the 2009 Masters. Cabrera also played with McIlroy during the final round here last year.

He noted that McIlroy has "obviously'' grown from that difficult day in 2011, but also said the situation so far has been much different.

"Last year he was playing the last round to win the Masters and right now he is playing the qualifying rounds,'' Cabrera said.

You can't win if you don't put yourself in position. So far, McIlroy has done quite nicely.

"I'm not leading, so that's a bit different,'' McIlroy said. "I'm sort of in the pack. But it's not a bad place to be. I've been in this position before. I've come back here a major champion, and I come back here with a lot more experience than I had this time last year, and you think all that just sort of makes a difference.''

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.