McIlroy to get motor going for Masters with first turn of key at Honda
THREE steps from heaven. Rory McIlroy today begins his countdown to April's Masters and his bid for a place in history as the world's sixth and Europe's first Career Grand Slam.
Hungry for his return to action 24 days after winning the Dubai Desert Classic, McIlroy tees it up for the first time in America this year with high-flying Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka.
They play in the marquee group in the Honda Classic at PGA National, minutes from the Ulsterman's house in Palm Beach Gardens.
Over the past three years, this tournament has given precise and, on one occasion, painful measure of where McIlroy stands with his game - and this weekend should be no different.
Next week, Holywood's World No 1 heads down Interstate 95 to Miami for the Cadillac World Golf Championship at Doral, followed by a spin up the Florida Turnpike to Orlando 10 days later to round off his pre-Masters tournament schedule with a first-ever appearance at Arnie Palmer's Invitational at Bay Hill.
Yet the Champions Course at PGA National, especially when played in the gusting winds expected today and tomorrow, will thoroughly examine every department of McIlroy's game.
Also tested will be the theory that the 25-year-old has grown so mentally strong and comfortable with his game that he possesses that once-Tigeresque ability to dominate straight off a break.
Having completed his 'legal separation' from former management company Horizon, a process which required McIlroy to spend only a few minutes in a courtroom before the case was settled, the pursuit of that precious Green Jacket is now entirely in his own hands.
"It feels quite a long time since I teed it up," said McIlroy yesterday. "I'm excited to get back out there."
Especially at PGA National, where he won in 2012, propelling McIlroy to the top of the world for the first time.
Yet this also is where McIlroy imploded in 2013 and walked off in despair after completing just eight holes, a dark day which served as the precursor to a truly shocking summer.
Last year at Honda, McIlroy showed his majesty had been restored by an unstinting winter's work with coach Michael Bannon that ultimately provided the foundation for victories at the BMW PGA in May, followed by his amazing hat-trick at the Open, Bridgestone World Championship and US PGA last July and August.
He didn't win in 2014, stumbling badly in the final round before reviving his spirits with arguably the shot of his season, a 245-yard five-wood across water and sand into 18 to set up the birdie which clinched his place in a four-man playoff.
Russell Henley prevailed in sudden death but all eyes were drawn to McIlroy as the Masters loomed, though once again his imperious long game yielded remarkably little reward on the par-fives at Augusta, which he played in even-par that week, against the aggregate eight-under by winner Bubba Watson.
Back in 2012, after seeing off the charging Tiger on Sunday at PGA National as he surged to victory, McIlroy struggled for several months, clearly needing time to adjust to the thin air at the peak of the game.
Yet he would climb back to the summit that August by winning the second of his four Major titles (the PGA at Kiawah), and has been there ever since. "I've spent well over a year of my career at World No 1, so I'm pretty used to it now," he says.
In fact, McIlroy has been World No 1 a total of 69 weeks, placing him fourth in the all-time list, behind Nick Faldo (97), Greg Norman (331) and Tiger (683), who, incidentally, remains at home in nearby Jupiter Island this week trying to get his game back to tournament standard.
While McIlroy blows away most golf enthusiasts by generating awesome power from such an 'easy' swing, his powers of recovery have most impressed his fellow professionals.
As Padraig Harrington told Newstalk radio this week: "Rory seems to be getting better with time. He's had two blips in his career and he's come back from them, which must be huge for him. There's nothing better."
American Hunter Mahan says: "He is a great representation of the ups and downs of golf. There was a time we thought 'boy, what's wrong with this guy?' and he appeared to be going in the wrong direction. Yet he has shown the mental ability and emotional stability to recover, and that's what makes him great."
Most noticeable of all is McIlroy's ability over the past year to take poor strokes or misfortune in his stride.
"Rory just has so much confidence, a bad shot doesn't bother him," says Watson. "He just shakes it off and moves on. His mental drive, his focus, is more impressive than anything else."
"I want people in 30, 40 or 50 years time to look back at me the way they look back to Jack Nicklaus, Arnie Palmer or Gary Player," he says. "I want to be remembered for what I've done in the game. That's what motivates me."
Over the next six weeks, until Sunday afternoon at the Masters, McIlroy will be hoping to take a huge stride towards achieving that legacy.
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Hurley best of the Irish in Spanish Amateur
The Spanish Men and Women's amateur golf championships began in Sherry Golf Jerez for the men and Real Club Pineda de Seville for the women yesterday.
Best of the Irish men was Gary Hurley whose opening 70 left him in joint second place, a shot behind overnight leader Jonathan Thomson of England.
Joint leaders Mehmet Inci, also of England, and Italy's Virginia Elena Carta set the pace in the women's championship, each scoring 69.
Their closest Irish challenger was Ulster's Olivia Mehaffey who posted a 73.
Irish Scores: Men - G Hurley 70; Robin Dawson 73; Jack Hume 73; Colm Campbell 76; Richard Bridges 76; Eugene Smith 77; Geoff Lenehan 77; Gavin Moynihan 78; Dermot McElroy 78; John Ross Galbraith 82.
Women: Olivia Mehaffey 73; Niamh McSherry 75; Chloe Ryan 77; Maria Dunne 77; Sinead Sexton 83.