If Rory McIlroy is to reach his holy grail by donning a Green Jacket next month, it will not all be on account of serious and intensive work.
McIlroy took to Augusta National at the end of last week, playing 36 holes in the company of his father and other luminaries from the worlds of high finance and the NFL. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, quarterbacks with five Super Bowl wins between them, were on the premises.
Far from using the trip as a stern homework exercise for the Masters, which is only three weeks away, McIlroy showed the difference between himself and Tiger Woods in his pomp. Namely, that is, the current world No1 relishes any opportunity to relax; even on a golf course.
“It was 100% fun, 0% serious,” said McIlroy. “I didn’t hit any extra balls. I played one ball the whole time. I really wanted to go and enjoy it with my dad, that was what the whole thing was about. There were four father and sons and we had a great time. I spent two days, one night and it was just about going and enjoying ourselves and that’s really what we did.
“There was just the enjoyment of going and playing a golf course like that with my dad, being in good company with all the good people for a couple of days and drinking some good wine out of their wine cellar. That’s really what it was. I had a really good time and it’s nice to feel relaxed in there for a change and not feel on edge the whole time.”
McIlroy joked that after finding himself in Augusta’s newly constructed gym alongside Messrs Brady and Manning, he realised it was “time to leave”. Perhaps Gerry, McIlroy Sr, learned more than his famous son. “Now he appreciates what I go through one week a year whenever I come off the course and he says: ‘Why did you do that on 6?’ or: ‘Why did you go there on 14?’ It’s not that easy. Now he appreciates what it’s like.”
Not that McIlroy is treating his Masters buildup lightly. During the Arnold Palmer Invitational this week, his final event pre-Augusta, he will dine with the legendary seven-times major champion. He held talks with Jack Nicklaus last weekend and, in what represented a notable change of plan, McIlroy flew out his coach, Michael Bannon, to Florida after a frustrating time at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
“The last five days have been really good, working with Michael just one on one, no one else around,” the 25-year-old said. “I am feeling much better about my game now than I was walking off Doral, 10 days ago.”
Jordan Spieth’s play-off win at the Valspar Championship on Sunday intensified the notion that he and Patrick Reed have upstaged Rickie Fowler as American threats to McIlroy, at Augusta and beyond. It is a challenge the Northern Irishman seems to welcome rather than fear.
“It is great to see,” McIlroy said. “Patrick has already won this year, Jordan had a phenomenal time last year and has won again. It’s great. It’s a more youthful sport than it used to be. You see younger guys coming up and coming through. They went on Tour and become more confident and feel like they can do it each and every week, so that is great to see.”
And what of Woods? There remains a question mark over the 39-year-old’s Masters participation amid a break from competition, triggered by a loss of fitness and form. Should Woods return in Georgia, McIlroy claims it would be folly to write him off.
“He knows his way around Augusta,” said McIlroy. “If he feels ready to play and he does play, then he knows what to do when there. Someone that’s won the Masters four times? I think he’s pretty comfortable in that place.”
Meanwhile, Bubba Watson has withdrawn from the Bay Hill event because of the death of a childhood friend, it was revealed on Wednesday evening.
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