Saturday 21 September 2019

Vincent Hogan: Rose can be thorn in Rory's side

McIlroy must find way of coping with Grand Slam pressure

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

There will come a moment for Rory McIlroy these next few days when Augusta National reaches for his collar with a cold hand and he'll feel like someone on a fairground ride that's just popped a bolt.

That's how it works on this crumb of North Georgia they've manicured into fantasy. The course will squeeze and McIlroy's pursuit of a career Grand Slam may suddenly feel a terrible liability. Only then will we know if all those sane, rational words in the build-up to his tenth Masters were borne of genuine belief or practised sagacity.

Justin Rose is one of the leading contenders at Augusta this week Photo: PA
Justin Rose is one of the leading contenders at Augusta this week Photo: PA

Because part of being a great golfer demands being an Oscar-grade actor too, a master of psychological concealment.

That's maybe tougher to achieve in Augusta than anywhere else on the planet. The warp of emotions this place can trigger through a putt missing by the width of a communion wafer or a drive catching a vindictive gust can, as Chi Chi Rodriguez once so memorably put it, "play castanets with your knees."

Two-time US Open champion Curtis Strange believes that two people in this field possess "the ability to lap the field". Those two are McIlroy and Tiger Woods.


But that's a startlingly bold declaration, given the quality assembled for a tournament that even three-time winner, Phil Mickelson, agrees may be the most anticipated in modern Masters history. McIlroy has vowed to be aggressive from the start today as he tees off at 6.38pm Irish time alongside former champion Adam Scott, and world number three Jon Rahm.

By then, the Tiger show will have rumbled through Amen Corner and we will have some clearer perspective on the validity of this week's pre-occupation with Woods' reclaiming of a seemingly vanished gift.

The antique white leaderboards will keep McIlroy up to speed on the early pacesetters and he has spoken of a determination not to find himself six or seven shots adrift of the first-day lead as happened him here last year.

With the forecast for a cool but mostly sunny day with light breezes, that may demand him shooting 70 or under, something he has done just twice in his previous nine Masters visits.

Only Gene Sarazen, in 1935 ,secured a career Grand Slam at Augusta and, for all the implied advantage of seeking victory in the smallest field for a Major (87 tee up today), there's little doubt that Augusta's magical topography asks uniquely complex questions.

McIlroy knows he has the game to light up this tournament, but he is acutely aware too of how the simplest misjudgement can lead to a precipitous fall. What happened him on the Sunday back-nine in 2011 is old news now, yet he does not hide from what it said.

"I place a lot of importance on what happened here in 2011," he insisted on Tuesday. "I feel like it made me a better player, I feel like it made me a better person, it definitely was a character-builder. It took me a while to get over it but I knew if I looked at the big picture, it would serve me well in the long run.

"And I don't think I would have had the career I've had so far if it wasn't for that day."

The broad worry is that his putting might not hold up here over four days in a place immutably linked to management of greens that, routinely, play quick as polished marble. But then that was the assessment of Sergio Garcia too until he won his first Major here last year.

Still, seldom have so many big-hitters, McIlroy included, come together in a richer vein of form. More top players (Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, McIlroy, Mickelson, Justin Rose, Jason Day, Rahm and Bubba Watson) arrived here with season wins already under their belts, while the spectacle of Woods competing so compellingly in recent weeks suggests his game could be strong enough again to secure a fifth green jacket.

Defending champion Garcia believes "eight or ten" players have "a really good, solid chance of winning", but the truth is it may be even more than that.

This was a point picked up on by Rahm who name-checked past long-shot winners like Mike Weir ('03) and Angel Cabrera ('09) as proof that "if there's 5,000 ways to play a regular course, there's probably 50,000 ways to go around Augusta National. And that's the beauty of it."

He might have name-checked Trevor Immelman ('08) and Danny Willett ('16) too, so the possibility of an unexpected 'bolter' shooting from the pack can scarcely be discounted.

Watson believes it is the mental battle of Augusta that drains people, a point with which Jason Day concurs. "Mentally, this is one of the toughest tournaments you play," suggested the Australian, currently sitting at 11 in the world rankings.

"Only because of the history that's behind the golf course, the golf tournament... you know exactly where people have hit what... so I would say the mental side of things."

Nowhere else are iconic golf shots more revered - Watson's boomerang swing on ten; Mickelson's miracle from the pine needles on 13; Tiger's outrageous chip and roll on 16 - and at some point over the coming days the champion-elect will have to conjure something miraculous that sends a rumble through these hills.

McIlroy has all the technical tools to be that player as his victory charge at Bay Hill italicised and, having played in excess of 90 practice holes here, he seems secure in the belief that Augusta National holds few enough mysteries for him now.

But he is bidding for a place with the gods of the game here. Even Arnold Palmer could not manage a career Grand Slam so the fact that McIlroy is one of three players (Spieth and Mickelson the others) looking to do it this year should not obscure the reality that it remains an immensely formidable challenge.

The first time he went after it here, in 2015, McIlroy believes the anticipation contaminated his thinking, placing an unhelpful weight upon his shoulders. And history matters to Rory. He name-checked men like Palmer, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead on Tuesday, finding a hopeful symmetry in how the former had his first Masters win at 28 (McIlroy's age) while the other two won theirs at the tenth attempt.

"It's all really meaningless unless you go out there and actually do it," he agreed. "But I feel I've been here long enough and I've played enough rounds around here to know how to play this golf course well and well enough to win."

He mentioned his closing 45 holes here in 2015, covered in 15-under, as a re-assuring assertion of his ability to shoot low here. "It's nice to know that I played the golf course just about as well as anyone and, hopefully, this is my week and I can get myself in there and grab it with both hands."

To do so, he will need, not simply to play his best golf here, but to survive the press of history slipping down so stealthily in the Augusta breezes.

Maybe the youthful counsel of world number two, Thomas, is the one he should remember.

Asked if he could even imagine the extra burden of pressure coming to bear on McIlroy this week, Thomas responded: "I would like it a lot more than trying to win my second Major, that's for sure.

"I mean at the end of the day, he's going to be going home either as a four-time Major winner or a five-time Major winner. That's still pretty good."

The heart says this is McIlroy's time. The head? A green jacket for the ultra-consistent Rose.

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