Paul Hayward: 'Augusta tests the limits of McIlroy's new-found calmness'
Inner calm is no bad quest for a golfer, but meditation and self-help books face a brutal test with the first shot at the Masters.
Tiger Woods, chipper and precise, had just nailed his drive off the first tee to a nice perky lie on the fairway when Rory McIlroy stepped up in the next group. The story of the first day then lurched from Woods to trees.
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McIlroy's opening salvo found the pines - a nervy start that led to a bogey, 445 yards into a four-day walk.
But there was better news. Three birdies in four holes at 13, 15 and 16 lit a fire under a round that put the world's big popular psychology authors on trial. Can they help McIlroy add a Green Jacket to his wardrobe at the 11th attempt?
That back-nine spurt restored the hope that we may be able to drop one of the great preview perennials in sport, even if McIlroy made a mess of 17.
Talent says it will happen. Modern appetites demands that it happens now. The bookies' favourite recovered from an even start to reach the turn in 36 but then dropped shots at 10 and 11 before another unflattering comparison with Woods presented itself at 14.
There, in his mock turtleneck, Woods sank a 25-foot birdie putt to take a share of the lead before McIlroy missed an eight-foot chance to delight Chinese Fir gallery a second time.
Twelve days after he lost to Woods in the Match Play in Texas, McIlroy was following golf's lodestar again.
After a self-proclaimed "wonderful start to the season," McIlroy, 29, ended the day missing the green on 18 with his second shot to finish with a one-over par 73.
This week he intrigued golf journalists with talk of the books he has been reading and the steps he has taken to attain "perspective" and "perception".
Arguably more significant than his inability to win the Masters thus far is the five-year gap since his last Major championship win (the 2014 Open and PGA titles).
Across that handful of seasons he has tried every strategy, from heaping pressure on himself to lifting it off; from caring too much to being patient and phlegmatic.
McIlroy says he meditated for 20 minutes before his final, winning round in the Players Championship and is ploughing through self-help tomes, from 'The Greatest Salesman in the World' by Og Mandino to 'Digital Minimalism' by Cal Newport, which espouses "deep work" and not being distracted by your phone.
Newport told the 'New York Times' in a recent interview: "Every time you switch your attention from one target to another and then back again, there's a cost.
"This switching creates an effect that psychologists call attention residue, which can reduce your cognitive capacity for a non-trivial amount of time before it clears.
"If you constantly make 'quick checks' of various devices and inboxes, you essentially keep yourself in a state of persistent attention residue, which is a terrible idea if you're someone who uses your brain to make a living."
And McIlroy certainly needs his brain to navigate Augusta in a way that allows his gifts to shine. Students of mindfulness will recognise his attempt to notice more about Augusta: its natural beauty and intensity.
"One of the great things about this course is it forces you to be creative, and I like that side of the game," he says.
"I like to see shots. I like to visualise. So you know, the massive, tall pines, the contrast between the green grass and white bunkers, the yellow flagsticks, there's so many things to look at and be aware of and it paints a picture for you.
"You could describe it as a spiritual place. I feel like when you get on the grounds at Augusta, when it's not Masters week, it's very similar to walking into an empty church. It's just got that aura. It's a really nice place to be."
Old clubhouse cynics may scoff at this. To them, McIlroy just needs to raise his concentration level and be more ruthless.
Yet here he is "focusing on the small things and not living and dying by results, and not getting caught up in trying to play perfect golf".
This week he has talked about the 'Calm' and 'Headspace' apps and enthused about his relationship with a medical centre in Jupiter, Florida, called CIHP, from where Dr Clayton Skaggs has joined him at Augusta.
The clinic's work is largely fitness, injury and body-mechanics related, but McIlroy has embraced it, presumably to blend the physical with the spiritual.
So now he takes to the golf course in a convoy of ideas and aides, physical and psychological.
Only he can know the burdens and pleasures of carrying such a talent around, and if he needs external help with composure and "perspective" then nobody can object.
In the final two holes of this round you saw how hard it is for the gifted sportsperson to fight these battles in the top competitions, not once a day, but at every hole, in every step. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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