This Masters already serves as Rory McIlroy’s odd one out. For the first time since 2012, the Northern Irishman will arrive at Augusta National without an all-consuming narrative as baggage.
Four years ago his Masters build-up was dominated by talk of the 2011 capitulation, which ruined his hopes of glory and reduced the player to tears. By April 2013, McIlroy was already in the midst of his annus horribilis. The bounce back of 2014, inevitable though that had seemed, heightened focus upon McIlroy once again; as did the Augusta appearance of a crimson-haired Caroline Wozniacki, who never seemed to relish playing understudy to her then-fiance. Last year? McIlroy was on the verge of a career grand slam of majors, a prospect prominent in his mind virtually from the moment he holed the winning putt in the US PGA Championship at Valhalla, eight months earlier.
Jordan Spieth left the remainder of the field playing for second place by Friday lunchtime. The brilliance of that showing cannot be praised enough – it completely skewed the aspirations of others.
In advance of the 80th Masters McIlroy is in the unorthodox position of swimming peacefully among the sharks who have bitten chunks out of the season to date. A significant element of this will be by design. The most naturally gifted player in the world, who remains capable of a gear shift beyond all others, is in the curious position of being under the radar. As David Feherty, the respected commentator, put it: “When Rory plays well, good luck to all the others.”
That grand slam is still McIlroy’s primary goal. Simply because Spieth and Jason Day have claimed the vast majority of the spotlight, McIlroy’s position on making history has not altered. He is still a four-time major winner and still a player with a style of play, all logic suggests, that will prevail before too long at Augusta. And more than once.
“I’m going in there with the same objective, same mindset and trying to achieve the same thing,” McIlroy says. “I don’t think it makes much of a difference at all, whether I’m going in there and being talked about or if I’m not, because I’m still feeling the same things that I’m thinking about.
“Maybe I’m putting pressure on myself, but I know what it would mean to me and I know what it would mean to my career [to win].”
Twelve months ago it was not so much external attention that derailed McIlroy as the placing of too much focus upon himself. This was a fresh if understandable McIlroy scenario: his ability to embrace life away from his profession, leading to a helpful lack of obsession, is one of the 26-year-old’s most admirable traits. His engagement to Erica Stoll, a serene presence in any environment, has provided stability and contentment that is abundantly clear even upon passing glance.
Before his eighth Masters appearance, McIlroy declined the opportunity for an early visit. He will do likewise in respect of the circus that serves as the annual par-three contest. “You can’t learn as much in practice rounds as actual tournaments,” he says. “Everything I’ve learned there has been during competitive play because there’s nothing like missing it in a wrong spot when you really can’t miss it in a wrong spot. It’s why this year I’m not going up there early.”
None of these matters guarantee peak performance or determine what others may produce. Any notion of McIlroy, Spieth, Day, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Adam Scott and the batch of others – as many as 20 players, for whom a case can be made – offering their finest play over four days in Georgia is a wonderful one but also completely unrealistic. This sport, after all, is not in arcade game format.
McIlroy’s on-course problem has been a straightforward if vexing one. One short stretch of Augusta holes has continually undermined his dreams. Last year, his outward nine of 40 on Friday meant a subsequent 18-hole run of nine under par was necessary just to retain some kind of relative prominence.
This year there have been occasional signs that McIlroy has not completely eradicated the propensity for a ruinous spell from his make-up. If that alters in the coming week, it would serve as a game-changer. “I feel like I’ve improved each and every year at Augusta,” he says. “I don’t feel like anyone needs to tell me how to play the course. I feel like I’ve been there enough to know that. I know what I need to do to win at Augusta. I know what the game plan is. It’s just executing that game plan that week and hitting the right shots at the right time.
“I’m very positive and optimistic going back this year because over the last few years, I’ve improved my performance there. I had my best finish last year, and I played the course pretty much the way I wanted to.
“I didn’t get off to the greatest of starts but had a good weekend. I played the par-fives very well, I stuck to the game plan.”
Numbers endorse McIlroy’s point. Last year he played the par fives in a combined 14 under par, without dropping a single shot over four days. His total aggregate of 12 under would have won the Masters of 2014, 2013 and 2012. McIlroy’s last competitive round at Augusta, of 66, did not include a single bogey.
Form may be impossible to gauge from one year to the next. Quiet confidence, however, is a valuable emotion. McIlroy’s subtle aim is thus: regaining his status as the name on everyone’s lips.
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