Perhaps this was continuing a theme of attracting as little attention as possible. Or maybe the idea was simply to hand a thrill to a young amateur golfer.
Either way, Rory McIlroy’s decision to partner Bradley Neil for a practice round on Monday at Augusta National afforded the 19-year‑old from Blairgowrie four hours he will not forget.
Neil, it should be recognised, is not simply a star-struck kid. He is the British amateur champion, an achievement that gave him this invitation to the first major of the year. It was during a visit to Augusta a couple of weeks ago that the duo had lunch – having initially been introduced at last year’s Ryder Cup – and a game was arranged. Another amateur, Byron Meth, even joined the duo for a few front-nine holes before leaving them at the turn.
“That was better than I imagined,” said Neil afterwards. “A bit like coming here for the first time, it exceeded all my expectations. He made me feel really comfortable out there.”
As McIlroy chases the final piece of a career grand slam before turning 26, the scale of Neil’s task is to be found in history. No British amateur player since Peter McEvoy, four decades ago, has made a Masters cut. It is the professional prize, though, and the significance of it to McIlroy that is dominating pre‑tournament attention.
“You can’t tell,” Neil said of the pressures on the world No1. “Whether he hides it or deals with it, I don’t know, but you would think he was in the same situation as me. You wouldn’t think he was major contender this week with the way he deals with things.
“I know exactly what is in store for him this week. He has a chance to join some of the greats of the game and he has probably had this on his mind for months. He is just a normal person, that’s the thing.
“Nobody here views him as that but he is so down to earth, I was able to speak to him about loads of stuff. To see Rory McIlroy so calm shows how strong he is.
“His game is great; he has had a few weeks off, he has been working hard on his game and I’d be surprised not to see him up there on Sunday.”
There was an early, wonderful moment for the Scotsman as he chipped in for an eagle at the par-five 2nd. A congratulatory hand slap from McIlroy followed. “Rory couldn’t stop laughing because that day I met him here, I did exactly the same thing when he was standing on the 3rd tee,” Neil explained.
The thrill was for Neil’s entourage, including his family and friends, as much as the golfer himself. “Just being here is great but seeing that on the 1st tee. It was awesome,” said Rodney Neil, Bradley’s father. “There wasn’t quite tears but there might be on the first day.
“He has an opportunity that not many kids get and it’s an experience that will hopefully drive him on and make him a better player and move forward.
“They are similar builds. If you look at Rory, it’s only in the last couple of years that Rory has been in the gym and really built himself up. Bradley has been doing that and it was just unfortunate that he had an operation that has stopped him getting in the gym. He’s still got to develop where Rory has developed. You get to that stage where you are strong enough and you have to maintain it. Bradley has not got there yet. He’s got six years to go.
“When I took Bradley and his brother Connor out to play golf at the age of three is wasn’t about this. It was just getting them out playing, enjoying it and meeting people. I was into golf and it was great for me to take them out, watch them hit balls, get better and then take out to tournaments. It could have been fishing they were doing but it might not have had the same effect as coming here.”
This was a rare snapshot of opposite ends of the Masters spectrum. An endearing one, at that.
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