Sunday 23 April 2017

Rory McIlroy: 'I'm a p**** in week leading up to the Masters'

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland reacts to his putt on the sixth hole during a practice round prior to the start of the 2017 Masters Tournament at Augusta
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland reacts to his putt on the sixth hole during a practice round prior to the start of the 2017 Masters Tournament at Augusta

James Corrigan

If the Masters is golf’s great cathedral then Rory McIlroy strode bravely into its confession box here yesterday. “I’m a complete p---- in the week leading up to Augusta,” he said.

The reason why should be clear, even to us amateur psycho-analysts, but he delivered it anyway when revealing what the first word he thinks of is whenever Augusta is ever mentioned. “Stress,” McIlroy replied.

At 27 years of age, McIlroy is the only European ever to have won three different majors. At 27, McIlroy is the only golfer to have won three different majors in the last 40 years, other than Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. At 27, McIlroy cannot forget what happened to him at Augusta when he was 21. He led by four shots going into the final round and everyone expected him to win his first major. McIlroy shot 80.

Since then, the pressure has built and built, as every trinket around the neck has only increased the burden. “Great playing to win the US Open/Open/USPGA/Ryder Cup Rory, but when are going to win the Masters?” And what has made it yet more heavy to carry, has been his long-stated intention that Augusta was the scene of glory in his childhood dreams. That is because of 1997 and the milestone victory of his inspiration and now fiend, Tiger Woods.

“It really is very clear in my memory, especially the last round, which I could go through shot by shot now if I have to,” McIlroy said. “The next morning, all I wanted to do was to hit balls and try to be my hero.”

McIlroy still craves to emulate Woods, but now there is an entire mountain of motivation. The career grand slam beckons and the right to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nickluas and Woods in the pantheon. In the Ulsterman’s mind these legends are all ganging up on him, together with that ambition which has burned within since toddler status. For seven days only, it turns Tiger’s golden cub into the grouchy bear he is definitely not.

“No, I am probably not much fun to be around, but they [his friends and family] understand and know that. It’s a stressful situation,” he said. “There’s joining the five guys with the career grand slam and all of that, but there’s also just being the Masters champion and the green jacket and getting to go in the Champions Locker Room, to the Champions’ Dinner and knowing you’ll always be a part of the place.

“That’s a big deal when you think back to watching it in wonder as a kid. You not only have to beat all the other players, but do it knowing that victory comes with all this cool stuff. That’s the mental challenge.”

If Georgia is forever on his mind then this revered layout is under his skin. There have been chances since 2011, but chances he has blown asunder into the azaleas. A 77 when he finished eighth in 2014; a fifth in 2015 when he conceded seven shots to Jordan Spieth after a first round 71; and perhaps, most painfully, last year, he was only one behind leader Spieth and in the final group with him, and shot another Masters-wrecking 77. “It’s always something,” McIlroy said.

The point is that like all the most captivating romantic tragedies, McIlroy loves Augusta, but hates what it does to him. He is determined not let it seduce him and spit him out and apart from the obvious desire for a son to play with his father at golf’s most cherished play ground, that is why he returns here whenever he can.

McIlroy made the visit with Gerry last month, along with two businessmen from Seminole - another ultra-exclusive club situated near his Florida home - and although his companions must have believed the sporting genius among them was there for the giggles and kicks as well as a reconnaissance mission, he was, in fact, here subtly slaying ghosts.

“The more comfortable you can feel around Augusta the better,” McIlroy told Golf Digest. “For me, that’s what it’s all about. Going up for trips with Dad and friends and just messing around. That makes it feel way easier for me because I always associate Augusta with stressful situations and shots.

“If you can get up there and make it feel as if you’re just playing another round of golf at another golf course…well.  Like I was playing and I’m just messing around playing different shots and thinking ‘why can’t I do this during the Masters?”

Of course, McIlroy can do it, but everything in his major odyssey suggests he must do it from the first round and dominate thereafter and although the pre-tournament rains, which will soften Augusta, will surely play to his strengths, his task has been made more arduous by a few other factors.

McIlroy likes to storm out early and stamp his indelible and irresistible mark, but he has been “drawn” alongside Japan’s Hideto Taniwara and the brilliant young Spaniard Jon Rahm, in the third-last, primetime US TV, starting spot of 1.41pm. By then, he will be on the Benadryl scale of itching to get out there.

And there are winds forecasted, with gusts of 25mph predicted in the late afternoon. The theory is doubtlessly overstated, but one of McIlroy’s many paradoxes is that a boy from the links-filled terrain of Northern Ireland is not at his best when his curls are ruffling.

If he overcomes all this, then it would undoubtedly be the week of his professional life, the result of his career. And his loved ones could stop stepping on eggshells in the first few weeks of April.

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