Horan, Twitter following of 22 million, will divert attention even from sports stars within touching distance of an incredible feat. When the rare appearance of Tiger Woods in this Wednesday pitch-and-putt affair is factored in, a frenzied buildup to this, the 79th playing of the year’s first major, was complete. Expectation and the Masters go hand in hand but rarely have the pair enjoyed such a tight grip as this time around.
Should McIlroy receive the Green Jacket from Bubba Watson on Sunday evening the only worry attached to the Northern Irishman will surround what he could possibly do next. He would hold a career grand slam, and three of golf’s majors at the one time, before turning 26. In this, an age of incessant comparison, McIlroy would be categorised as one of the all-time greats of his sport on account of Masters glory. Not even the BBC and its Sports Personality of the Year award could fail to properly acknowledge McIlroy then. Could it?
Thankfully, such discussion, sporting immortality and all, can wait. It is also far from a given. When McIlroy clicks he is unbeatable; the X-factor which separates him from the remainder of golf. But that gear change is not automatic, which offers a glimmer of hope to a meaty chunk of fellow competitors. The Masters, the epitome of sport’s upper echelons, has never been predictable.
McIlroy turned to his support staff last week and asserted he was ready for this tournament. In truth he was of a mind to land in one of Georgia’s most captivating, eerie, addictive corners from the second the winning putt dropped at last year’s US PGA Championship. A key part of the Masters allure is the length of that interlude and the whetting of golfing appetite it triggers.
So what is the key to happiness and history? By McIlroy’s own admission, success here will depend on curbing enthusiasm. Accept birdie rather than force for eagle. Occasional dramas, such as an imminent dropped shot, cannot turn into the crises of double- or triple-bogeys. He must improve on certain holes – the 2nd, 7th and 8th stand out – while finally capitalising on the opportunities his driving distance should present on back-nine par fives.
“If you look at the previous winners here, they’ve all played the par fives well,” McIlroy acknowledged. “Bubba last year played them at eight-under par; I played them at even par and he beat me by eight shots.”
If all of this transpires, linked to sharper stuff from 120 yards in at each hole, McIlroy will triumph. Failure, harsh term though that is in the context of this lofty environment, will not be on account of the background noise McIlroy has done everything conceivable to avoid.
Already, conditions appear in McIlroy’s favour. The occasional deluge of rain, as may well continue over the first two Masters days, will inevitably soften the course, not to the extent of Congressional when McIlroy won the 2011 US Open but still sufficiently to boost already brimming confidence.
Basic logic points out those players hitting short irons into greens have an advantage over the others who would suffer if the course is not firm. For all the cliches about the necessity for a perfect short game at Augusta – that is arguably the case for any major – statistics show a clear bias towards long hitters.
Just as McIlroy has benefited from the incredible din around Woods, other live contenders have been allowed to plot a Masters tilt with next to no attention at all. There is, for example, Jason Day; a player whose hopes of a maiden major win may only be undermined by wanting that very accomplishment too much. He has all the attributes to suggest that Masters glory will come his way in the not-so-distant future.
Day’s compatriot Adam Scott and the on-form Jimmy Walker deserve to be mentioned in dispatches. Jordan Spieth has been amid a run which has seen him finish no worse than second in three events. How an American crowd would revel in the endorsement of Spieth as the flag-bearer for a bright new – and post-Woods – dawn.
Phil Mickelson recorded more birdies than anybody in the field at last week’s Shell Houston Open, an indicator that his game may be about to peak at an opportune time. The bold Bubba himself, for whom course and distance specialism handily resonates at one of this sport’s iconic venues, is McIlroy’s own favourite if such a thing exists.
Dustin Johnson, arguably the best US golfer of his generation, could win if the most important margin in golf – between one’s ears – functions correctly. It does not always.
In short, McIlroy will not have things anything remotely close to his own way. Which probably suits him perfectly. Repeated evidence, after all, has shown us how fierce this young man’s accelerator press can be when danger appears in a rear-view mirror. The time has come to stop talking about McIlroy’s 2015 quest to enter a pantheon of greats – Sarazen, Hogan, Player, Nicklaus, Woods – and, instead, for the player himself to meet this epic challenge.
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