Augusta Galleries awed by Rory McIlroy's confidence of old
Round of power and grace shows Rory McIlroy's self-belief has returned after two years of self-inflicted damage.
The Man. A transcendent athlete. The dominant one. All these terms swirled around Rory McIlroy. "Dominant" and "transcendent" were words he used himself.
But before the golf could start, he helped dye Caroline Wozniacki's hair. In a sporting world where intensity and the utmost seriousness are expected - and frivolity is framed as a sign of weakness - it was somehow reassuring to learn that McIlroy had assisted in turning his fiancee's hair the colour of Augusta's azaleas.
It was no bar to him shooting a mostly promising one-under-par 71, which ended with a deflating three-putt on 18.
"It was a good day at the office," he said. "They set the course up very difficult. Some of the pin positions were tough to get close to. The greens are firming up, the wind was all over the place and anything under par is a good score. I feel good and better prepared than I have ever been because experience counts for so much."
The hair salon chatter stopped when McIlroy smashed his opening Masters drive so far down the fairway that his rookie playing partners, Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth, needed binoculars to see him as the group played their approach shots.
Mighty, booming drives characterised McIlroy's first round, which was preceded by talk of the need for "dominance" in modern golf. Talk stirred by McIlroy himself. "I never started playing golf to become a transcendent athlete," he said. "But I think sport needs those. It doesn't have to be one guy. It could be a handful of guys. But has it been a burden [the expectation]? No."
McIlroy's confidence is back, three years after the Masters reduced him to sobs. This game has never yielded a shorter, sharper tale of fall and rise than his meltdown on the back nine here in 2011, when he led for the first three days but twanged his drive into the cabins at the 10th on the Sunday.
His tee shot at 13 then plopped into Rae's Creek.
"That's probably the only time I've cried over golf, the morning after, in 2011," he says. But two months later he won the US Open by eight strokes, at barely 22, with the lowest score in its 115-year history.
Now, after his 2012 PGA Championship victory, and many managerial, personal, equipment and PR undulations, he is looking to chalk up three of the four majors by the age of 24.
Reed, who already sees himself as a "top-five" golfer but has something of a beer-and-nachos build, and Spieth, who is tipped for high honours, were probably thrilled to be grouped with McIlroy until he started belting drives way beyond their range.
At the 350-yard par-four third, McIlroy, who struggled with his new Nike equipment in a winless year in 2013, almost drove the green. He was belting the ball 30 or 40 yards further than Reed or Spieth but took longer to tune his approach play, often not quite nailing the pins. Even so, he birdied the third and fifth before dropping a shot at the par-five eighth.
In the glistening light, and with the pines of Augusta clearly still denuded from the ice storm that killed the Eisenhower Tree, McIlroy's power awed the galleries. All he strove for now was his touch, which seemed to come again when he birdied 13 and 15 after bogeying the 12th.
Following McIlroy, alongside Alan Shearer, Jamie Redknapp and Ant and Dec, there is always the sense that a magisterial round is only ever a click away.
Reed and Spieth are bright young things, but with McIlroy you always feel that you are watching pure talent flaring in and out of life. His mood on Tuesday radiated conviction and a noticeable maturity after two years of mostly self-inflicted damage.
"Any time you drive through the gates here, it sort of lights the fire up inside you," he said.
His Masters record so far is average: tied 20th, cut, tied 15th, tied 40th, tied 25th last year. "It probably took me a couple of years to feel really comfortable on the grounds," he says. "I remember coming in here in 2009 and saying, ‘I feel scared to take a divot on the fairways'. But it takes time to feel 100 per cent comfortable in these surroundings. I'm obviously at that point now in my sixth Masters."
His physical transformation is so pronounced that he has tweeted before and after pictures of himself in his soft-middled days and now, after constant gym work with Steve McGregor, his personal trainer.
"Rory's looking absolutely chiselled," said Sir Nick Faldo on his seasonal debut. And while all golfers have started to see Tiger Woods's US Navy Seals-style bodybuilding as a cautionary tale, the force exhibited by McIlroy in 279-yard and 308-yard drives here was telling.
Not that he thinks Augusta is set up for brutes. "I think it brings the guys that don't hit it as far into the mix a little bit more," he said. "Because it's not just about power then, it's about precision, it's about putting your ball in the right place and it becomes more of a mental challenge than anything else, just playing to your spots.
It almost becomes like chess, where you're just making these moves. That hasn't been my forte in the past, but I'll learn to love it this week."
If he can, no one will miss Tiger Woods on Sunday.