Sport Golf

Tuesday 12 November 2019

McIlroy has all tools to be Mater and commander

World No 1 Rory has the faith, hope and clarity to make history at Augusta National

Tournament favourite Rory McIlroy during practice at Augusta yesterday
Tournament favourite Rory McIlroy during practice at Augusta yesterday
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Rory McIlroy signs autographs for young fans at Augusta yesterday
Tiger Woods with his son Charlie (2nd R), daughter Sam and girlfriend Lindsey Vonn
Padraig Harrington reacts after narrowly missing out on a hole in one on the 9th tee alongside Shane Lowry yesterday
Jack Nicklaus celebrates a hole in one during the Par 3 competition

Karl MacGinty

Clever boy. Rory McIlroy was wise to cloister himself away from all the chatter and mental clutter for a fortnight before this week's date with destiny at The Masters.

For faith, hope and, above all, clarity are essential at Augusta National if the 25-year-old from Holywood is to slip into the Green Jacket next Sunday and etch his name in history as only the sixth winner of a Career Grand Slam.

This beautifully capricious golf course taxes, teases and tests more than any other, always exacting stiff punishment, often humiliation, to those who show uncertainty or doubt.

Add in the unprecedented number of players in this week's 97-man field with true winning credentials and the Masters equation begins to look very complex indeed.

To those of us who stand on the outside looking in, that is.

For McIlroy, it cannot, should not be simpler.


Irish golf's World No 1 will emulate Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods by winning a third successive Major title this week if he plays Augusta National as well and as freely as he did for the first 54 holes in 2011.

McIlroy has matured and his game has improved vastly enough in the intervening four years to compensate for any emotional baggage collected up as he frittered away a four-shot overnight lead that ill-fated Sunday and failed to finish the job.

He's also strong enough to withstand the notional pressure of completing that Career Grand Slam and joining Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Hogan and Woods in the most exclusive club in golf.

Like Sarazen, Hogan and Woods, McIlroy's bidding to do it at his first attempt but the key for the Ulsterman is to concentrate on the business of playing each round, then winning the tournament, thereby letting history take care of itself.

Though McIlroy readily acknowledges his need to score better on Augusta's par fives to have any chance of winning, the remedy he suggests appears relatively straightforward and clear.

He admits needing to be "more efficient", to "curb" his natural enthusiasm on those four holes. "Not go (automatically) for pins but play into those greens with more imagination and see things differently, just be a little smarter. Play for fours and try not to be greedy."

In six appearances at Augusta since his debut in 2009, McIlroy has played the four par fives in 21-under par, ceding 22 shots, or one in each round, to Bubba Watson, 20 to Tiger Woods and a whopping 27 to Mickelson … this on holes he comfortably can reach in two.

The stat most bandied about this week, even by the Ulsterman himself, is that he played those four long holes in even-par last year, against eight-under by Bubba ... and Watson beat him by eight.

One expects McIlroy this week to apply the famous adage of six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus that "if you hit the ball in the middle of every green at Augusta, you're going to be okay!"

The advice Nicklaus offered McIlroy in private probably was a little more specific but the message is clear. It doesn't pay to go chasing pins at Augusta.

Though McIlroy berates himself for standing in the 13th and 15th fairway with 9-iron on Sunday last year and making six on both occasions, it's still difficult to imagine him ignoring his screaming instincts and not going for eagle.

Never mind if David Feherty colourfully compared the 15th green to Manny Pacquaio's nose - "It's within reach but impossible to hit" - or Augusta master Phil Mickelson insists a decision to always apply discretion playing into that short par five was key to him winning the first of his three Green Jackets in 2004.

To take full advantage of his length off the tee, it behoves McIlroy to attack every time the opportunity arises.

McIlroy's had problems on other holes here, notably his failure ever to make birdie at the first or his supposed nemesis, the 10th, while he's posted a momentum-killing round of 77 or more in each of the last five Masters.

Yet he's matured so visibly over the past 15 months, McIlroy no longer falls hostage to misfortune as easily as in the past. Despite a 77 on Friday last year, he managed still to carve out his first top-10 at Augusta.

"I think I'm more experienced now," he said. "I had a run last year where I'd throw in a bad nine holes, usually on a Friday, but I think I'm better equipped now to handle adversity that might come my way out there.

"You've got the obvious holes where you hope to take par and move on, try to avoid the big number, and that's what I'll be trying to do this week."

At Augusta, however, the sands are forever shifting.

"It throws up new things every hole you play," explained Padraig Harrington. "It depends on where they situate the holes or put the tees. For example, off the front of the first tee here, you can carry the bunker. Off the back, sometimes you're not reaching that bunker."

That demands confidence, certainty and mental agility. As McIlroy recently admitted: "There's a lot of touch, a lot of finesse required around Augusta. That's the one thing I'm still trying to learn and get better at. It's that style of golf, managing my way around golf courses a little bit better. I think that's the thing I need to have to call myself a complete golfer."

If the going is as soft over as weather forecasters suggest (even with SubAir running at full tilt), McIlroy may be afforded an advantage into the greens similar to that he enjoyed in the 2011 US Open at Congressional, albeit on a vastly more complex course.

As for the added length required to compete on a wet course, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Jimmy Walker, JB Holmes, Jason Day and Adam Scott are unlikely to feel themselves at a disadvantage to the Irishman.

There's more logic than mischief in McIlroy's assertion this week that Watson's game, form and soaring confidence offer him as a ready-made favourite for a third Masters title in four years.

Bubba's fellow left-hander Mickelson (44) cannot be discounted either, a decent performance at Houston allowing him to clutch straws of hope at a venue that inspires him .

As for the ultimate Augusta specialist, Woods, his form will remain a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, until he strikes his first few chips in anger today.

He's been in uncharacteristically ebullient form this week, embracing Tour colleagues and engaging with spectators.

As ever, Tiger says he's here to win but he'll be delighted first to make the cut, considering the career-worst 82 he shot in his most recent complete round at January's Phoenix Open.

Sure, Woods returned from nearly four months of self-imposed exile in 2010 to claim a share of fourth but he had a relatively reliable golf game back then.

One expects the hottest player on the PGA Tour right now, Jordan Spieth, to really throw down the gauntlet to McIlroy. He's not the longest but Ben Crenshaw, who plays his last Masters this week, brilliantly summed-up his fellow Texan's steely, gunslinger resolve when he said: "The first time I met Jordan, he looked at me and it felt like I was staring into the eyes of Wyatt Earp."

JB Holmes, who prevailed over Spieth in last Sunday's sudden death shoot-out in Houston, has the firepower to do well this week but, like Johnson, may not be sharp enough on the greens.

None of them, not even Bubba, offer as complete a package as complete as McIlroy's, if he retains clarity of mind and confidence in his basic instincts.

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