McIlroy in need of San Antonio spur
Scheduling again leaves Irish star struggling to find his ‘A’ game for Augusta
SAN ANTONIO is 225 miles west of Houston. It's a three-hour drive on I-10 or just 62 minutes as the Tour crowd flies, yet this trifling trip will make the world of difference to Rory McIlroy's prospects at next week's Masters.
McIlroy's decision to accept the advice of caddie JP Fitzgerald and enter the Valero Texas Open represents a hallelujah moment in his train-wreck of a season. Several factors combined in recent months to turn this prince of golfers into a doubt-ridden pauper, but most damaging of all was McIlroy's hapless tournament schedule.
Sadly, this is the second year in succession that his Augusta build-up has been threatened by ill-advised scheduling.
In 2012, the edge went off McIlroy's game during a three-week hiatus between the Honda Classic and the Masters, leading to a dispiriting weekend at Augusta, which undermined his confidence heading into the summer.
This year he's endured greater trials after making far more damaging errors.
Inevitably, McIlroy's switch from Titleist to Nike clubs brought teething troubles and both parties in this $20m-per-annum marriage were remarkably ill-prepared for that hellish honeymoon at January's Abu Dhabi Championship.
On Sunday, McIlroy agreed that after missing the cut in Abu Dhabi he probably should have played another event on Europe's Middle East swing.
For many, the Desert Classic in Dubai offered him an obvious chance to put his game and equipment to the test on familiar ground. Waiting four weeks for his next competitive outing afforded little opportunity to solve annoying glitches with his new clubs or his swing.
Indeed, it allowed them to fester, while McIlroy's subsequent first-round defeat against Shane Lowry at the Accenture Match Play showed why this volatile event is anathema to any bedding-in process.
Already reeling, McIlroy then took on the defence of his Honda Classic title at blustery PGA National, resulting in 28 horror holes which, metaphorically, stripped him naked. Should we be surprised he cracked that black Friday and ran?
Yet a guaranteed four rounds in Doral offered a perfect balm. After wisely resisting the temptation to take on Tiger Woods and Bay Hill, McIlroy then found further self-belief in Houston.
With ever-engaging honesty, he admitted to a litany of errors at Redstone. Yet there was more on offer than Humble pie last weekend as McIlroy produced several brilliant and morale-boosting passages of play.
Proving that he is still enjoying life off the course, McIlroy then tweeted a picture of himself at a basketball game in San Antonio being dwarfed by Miami Heat basketball stars Dwyane Wade and LeBron James later on Sunday night. Still, after just 12 competitive rounds in 2013, McIlroy needs a San Antonio spur to help find his 'A' game for Augusta.
Phil Mickelson sniffily suggests such "a windy, tight course isn't conducive to getting ready for Augusta".
McIlroy counters sagely: "If it was a par-three course, I'd go and play it because I need competitive golf. I have to commit to targets. It doesn't matter if it's short or wide, all I need is to have a card in my hand this weekend."
He'll be joined at the Texas Open by Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Lowry, who, like Trophee Hassan victor Marcel Siem, has been invited to an event either must win to clinch the sole remaining spot at next week's Masters.
Siem's victory in Agadir put him a tantalising two-hundredths of a ranking point outside of the world's top 50. Russell Henley's share of 45th with McIlroy in Houston edged the German out to 51st at yesterday's cut-off for Augusta.
The field for this year's Masters (92 plus, possibly, one more next Sunday) will be the lowest since 90 competed in 2006. It includes Redstone winner DA Points and impressive runner-up Henrik Stenson.
Yet, with San Antonio's assistance, McIlroy still may be Tiger's hottest rival at the Masters.