Niall Horan? Who’s he? The press room at Augusta National is one of those rare places where the name elicits only upturned palms and empty looks. So Rory McIlroy quickly added the qualifier “from One Direction”.
Seems golf journalists, mostly middle-aged men, just aren’t Horan’s crowd. Horan is going to be carrying McIlroy’s bag during the par-three contest on Wednesday, when he will likely do a lot more to boost the viewing figures among the young, female demographic than the club’s own Drive, Chip and Putt Championship for under-15s.
The two of them caught up in Australia at the end of last year and when Horan said he was coming to the Masters, McIlroy told him: “If you’re available Wednesday afternoon and you want to carry my bag for nine holes, you’re more than welcome.”
This year’s par-three competition, then, is shaping up to be a fun one. It is certainly bound to draw huge crowds. Not least because Tiger Woods is also playing in it. His kids are going to caddie for him.
The popular theory is that Woods’s late decision to play here has taken a lot of the attention – and by extension a lot of the pressure – off McIlroy. He doesn’t really buy it. “A little bit, I guess. It is such a big story,” he says. “Does it give people something else to talk about? Yes. But I’m not necessarily listening to anything that anyone is saying, so it doesn’t really make a difference to me.”
McIlroy insists he doesn’t “feel any more or less attention” just because Woods is here, because he does not pay the hype much mind anyway.
On Monday, Nike released a new advert, a short film showing how Woods had influenced McIlroy back when he was first learning the game. And McIlroy’s thoughts about Woods now hark back to that time, when the 25-year-old was a fan, not a rival.
“I think everyone is just curious to see how he comes back,” McIlroy says. “Just as a golf fan in general, I’m sort of interested to see how he does come back.
“I had a good chat with him on the putting green today. He feels good. He’s been working hard. He’s got the motivation and, just like everyone else, I’ll be looking for his score to see what he is doing.”
McIlroy says Woods’s comeback is good for the game. “Hopefully this is the start of a period where he can play continuously and have a good run at it, because, you know, he’s 39, turning 40 this year. He’s got maybe a few years left where he can play at the top level and he’s going to give it his all.”
Nike, of course, lay it all on a little thick but McIlroy admits Woods “was a hero of mine growing up. I did have posters of him on my wall, and I did idolise him, really.” Same goes, he says, for all the golfers of his generation. “He was the benchmark, he was the inspiration for us to go out and try to be the best we could be.”
It is a little different now, McIlroy says. He has had to take Woods down off that pedestal. They are friends, though that friendship does not extend so far that McIlroy felt too worried for Woods when his game fell apart at the start of this year.
“It’s hard to be concerned for someone that’s already won 14 [majors] and 80 PGA Tour events and earned over a billion dollars in his career.” At Augusta this year Horan and McIlroy both find themselves in the unusual position of being caught in someone else’s shadow.
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