Masterful Rory's game perfect fit for Green Jacket
Older and wiser – and more relaxed – Holywood star has talent to secure glory at Augusta and banish 'Black Sunday' demons forever
It's so easy to be seduced by the surreal beauty of Augusta National, to get swept away on a tide of noise and excitement which will rise over the next four days to a breathless crescendo.
Yet The Masters invariably is won by a man who finds peace among the tumult, who converts all that adrenaline into steely, silent resolve.
On Sunday, that man will be Rory McIlroy!
Through history, there have been fewer than a dozen players born to win The Masters. Arnie Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are five from the modern era that instantly spring to mind.
If McIlroy has yet to slip into a Green Jacket, his game is a natural fit for this golf course. He could have won in 2011 but, mentally, wasn't quite ready, while Augusta was a write-off for the Holywood native in the past two years.
In 2012, McIlroy was thrown out of sync for the Masters by heady early-season success, which included reaching World No 1 for the first time.
Last year was a head wrecker for a wide variety of reasons, but the real McIlroy is back in Georgia this week.
Happy with his game, snug with his clubs and blissfully content in his private life following his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, the 24-year-old is perfectly placed to resume his love affair with Augusta National this week.
Love is a word guys like Palmer, Mickelson and McIlroy use when they speak of The Masters.
"This is the best week of the year if you are a golfer. It's my favourite week," says Mickelson, who looks forward especially to the raw excitement of being in contention late on Sunday at The Masters.
"We feel the energy and we love it," he replied when asked if long-standing caddie Jim 'Bones' Mackay had to ramp him down as the smoke and cordite swirls on Sunday afternoon.
"I mean, that's why we play. That's what we love," added Mickelson. "To feel that energy and to hear the roars and be part of what's happening in the final nine holes here is the greatest experience a golfer can have."
Mickelson is perfectly at home at Augusta, where he can blaze away with impunity off the tee and rely on his ingenious short game around its infamously intricate green complexes.
"The feeling that comes over me when I drive down Magnolia Lane is I don't have to play perfect to perform well here because I can recover from mistakes," he explains. "I feel you always have a swing if you hit a bad shot. You have a chance to save par, to let your short game save it for you."
McIlroy is different. His easy power and ball flight is tailor-made for the majority of Augusta's fairways, while his towering iron shots fly at near-perfect trajectory into its notoriously hard greens.
At his best, it lends the Ulsterman a measure of precision and control which only the modern master of Augusta National, Tiger Woods, could match.
Given this exceptional ability, it seems bizarre that McIlroy's best finish in five appearances at The Masters is a share of 15th and he didn't really contend down the stretch that Black Sunday in 2011.
The youngster was there in body alright, playing in the final group that afternoon after leading for three days but his tournament effectively ended when he followed a calamitous treble-bogey seven at 10 by dropping another shot at 11; four-putting for five at 12 and driving into Rae's Creek at 13.
It was Amen Corner for McIlroy that afternoon as he racked up an 80, the worst final-round score at the Masters by the 54-hole leader.
He shed tears during a phone call to his mother the following morning but they were soon wiped away when McIlroy registered the first of his two record-breaking Major championship successes at the very next Major, the US Open in Congressional.
"Definitely, that day was a huge learning curve as a professional golfer," he says.
"But if you don't have disappointments, then what do you learn from? I bounced back from it really well. I learned what I didn't do right and what I needed to do better when I got myself back into a position like that.
"If I'd held on to win, it would have been a great first Major but would I have learned as much as I did from collapsing on the back nine? Probably not! In the longer term, it probably was a good thing."
McIlroy's hopes of making amends on subsequent visits to Augusta twice were stymied on Saturday and, on both occasions, he had frittered away a handful of shots in ugly clusters.
The problem, it seemed, was his tendency to give in to his natural aggression on a course where fortune rarely favours the brave.
"This place is like a huge mousetrap with a piece of cheese," explains three-time Masters champ Gary Player. "You nibble it at the wrong time and the thing goes off."
Having taken the bait, a frustrated McIlroy compounded the error by chasing lost causes.
Three years later, McIlroy has changed. He looks considerably stronger physically and, one expects, is correspondingly wiser. More comfortable with his game and life in general, he will be less prone to frustration.
He hasn't exactly achieved optimum results in the early months of the season and that final-day reverse at the Honda Classic, culminating in sudden-death defeat to Russell Henley, must have stung.
Yet last Sunday's 65 at Houston; the sublime quality of his golf in practice this week and his calm almost cheerful exterior in the days before battle all suggest that McIlroy's in the perfect state of mind to exercise his birthright at Augusta.
He certainly appears to be the 'old hand' in a fascinating three-ball with Patrick Reed (23) and Jordan Spieth (20), just two of 24 Masters first-timers in the 97-strong field.
Even in the absence of Padraig Harrington, who failed to qualify for the Masters for the first time since his Augusta debut in 2000, Irish golf is represented by three Major champions as McIlroy is joined by fellow Ulstermen Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell.
Clarke was presented with an engraved silver ice bucket yesterday under the famous old oak on the back lawn of the Augusta National clubhouse in a ceremony to make his 500th European Tour appearance.
Though Clarke is thinner, fitter and striking the ball better than he has in years, frustration with his putting is so intense, one hopes he'll not need the contents of an ice bucket to help him keep his cool on Augusta's infamous greens.
"I think Rory has been hitting it really well again and he's looking very fit," said Clarke.
"G-Mac is looking very strong at the moment so I wouldn't be surprised if one or both of them were up there come Sunday afternoon."
McDowell's gifts are different to those of McIlroy. His game is perfect for the hostile environment of a hard-baked US Open or windswept British Open but, as four missed cuts in six appearances here suggest, is not a comfortable fit for Augusta. Yet the Portrush man is determined to apply all his famous resolve and deft touch as the US Tour's leading putter to force his way into the final groups on Sunday and experience at first hand the most thrilling fireworks display in golf.
"I'm really, really desperate to feel the back-nine here on Sunday here at Augusta," he vowed. "To be in one of those last three or four groups on Sunday afternoon and feel the energy ... to hear the bombs going off and maybe be a part of setting one of them off myself."
Injured Tiger Woods, sadly, isn't here this week; Phil Mickelson has not been in peak physical condition; Adam Scott must endure the added pressure of defending his title and Australia's other Masters hotshot, Jason Day, is fresh back from a six-week hiatus with a thumb ligament injury.
McIlroy, this is your chance!
Today's Augusta tee-times
1st Rd, The Masters, Augusta National.
(US unless noted, a – amateur)
(All Irish times)
12.40 A Palmer, G Player, J Nicklaus (honorary starters).
12.45 S Cink, T Clark (SA)
12.56 I Woosnam (Wal), J Huh, K Stadler.
13.07 Ben Crenshaw, Yang Yong-eun (Kor), J Blixt (Swe).
13.18 M O'Meara, S Bowditch (Aus), J Niebrugge (a).
13.29 J Senden (Aus), B Weekley, D Lynn (Eng).
13.40 C Stadler, S Stallings, M Kaymer (Ger).
13.51 T Watson, B Horschel, B de Jonge (Zim).
14.02 M Weir (Can), M Every, R Castro.
14.13 A Cabrera (Arg), G Woodland, I Poulter (Eng).
14.24 F Couples, W Simpson, L Chang-woo (a) (Kor).
14.35 G McDowell (NIrl), R Fowler, J Walker.
14.57 Z Johnson, KJ C (Kor), S Stricker.
15.08 M Angel Jimenez (Spa), B Haas, M Manassero (Ita).
15.19 H Matsuyami (Jap), B Snedeker, J Donaldson (Wal).
15.30 C Schwartzel (SA), J Furyk, T Olesen (Den).
15.41 A Scott (Aus), J Dufner, M Fitzpatrick (a) (Eng).
15.52 J Spieth, P Reed, R McIlroy (NIrl).
16.03 K Streelman, DA Points
16.14 L Mize, B Grace (SA), M McCoy (a).
16.25 S Lyle (Sco), M Jones (Aus), K Duke.
16.36 J Maria Olazabal (Spa), L Glover, G Porteous (a) (Eng).
16.47 N Watney, S Gallacher (Sco),
D Clarke (NIrl).
17.09 V Singh (Fiji), T Bjorn (Den), R Moore.
17.20 M Kuchar, L Oosthuizen (SA), T Jaidee (Tha).
17.31 T Immelman (SA),
G DeLaet (Can), O Goss (a) (Aus).
17.42 G Fernandez-Castano (Spa), D Ernst, B Sang-moon (Kor).
17.53 B Langer (Ger),
F Molinari (Ita), C Kirk.
18.04 J Day (Aus), D Johnson, H Stenson (Swe).
18.15 B Watson, L Donald (Eng), S Garcia (Spa).
18.26 J Luiten (Net),
M Leishman (Aus), H Mahan.
18.37 K Bradley, V Dubuisson (Fra), P Hanson (Swe).
18.48 P Mickelson, E Els (SA), J Rose (Eng).
18.59 H English, L Westwood (Eng), R Henley.
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