Rory McIlroy can indulge a familiar smile about his first 100 events as a tour professional, but it will only be the 101st that matters to him on Thursday morning.
This tousle-haired prodigy has long since proved he is no “ordinary golfer”, to use his infamous branding of Tiger Woods, but he waits restlessly at his third Masters to complete the transition from pretender to major contender.
If it is any comfort, Gary Player claims to have a “feeling” that the fearless McIlroy will be garbed in the green jacket come Sunday evening. The hunch is derived less from the 21 year-old’s Augusta pedigree — he stumbled alarmingly last year, en route to a missed cut — than a conviction that his dazzlingly instinctive game must soon yield spectacular reward.
“Rory is so talented, I’ve got a feeling about him,” said Player, three-time Masters champion. “He is ready to come through. I just love the way he plays golf. However, we don’t know how he will rise to the occasion if he comes down the line and he’s leading.”
Front-running has not exactly been McIlroy’s niche: at last summer’s Open he followed a first-round 63 of stunning precocity with an 80, while at the US PGA he floundered in the Sunday gusts that blew in across Whistling Straits.
The malady is tricky to identify, and McIlroy has just taken a three-week break with his swing coach to find a remedy. He need not fret about his driving at Augusta, such is his natural capacity for firing 300-yard bombs at will.
A Twitter addict, he even taunted the short-hitting Luke Donald recently by promising he would leave an extra 25 yards on the Englishman’s doorstep. But of equal importance on these glassy greens is a short game of highly refined subtlety and touch.
To put it bluntly, McIlroy does not yet possess one, so susceptible is the Irishman to a rush of blood. His youthful impetuosity can achieve wondrous results, not least in a closing 62 to win at Quail Hollow last May, on a course of such difficulty that former US Open winner Johnny Miller described it as the best round he had ever seen.
But if his errant putting display at the business end of the PGA provides any clue, it is a streak to be curbed in the tense final reckoning at a major. Graeme McDowell, his friend and sidekick, wondered aloud whether he was mature enough to grind out a score, while Butch Harmon chose this week to damn McIlroy with faint praise.
“Rory hits the ball from right to left, so that’s the good news,” said Harmon, indicating that McIlroy’s signature draw would prove an asset on several of Augusta’s holes.
But as the coach to Phil Mickelson, by common consent a sorcerer with a wedge in hand, Harmon was worth paying attention to when he said: “I’m not sure his short game is of the quality of some of the other players.”
McIlroy is of a mind to listen, so set does he seem on elevating his position from No7 in the world rankings. His split from long-time girlfriend Holly has heralded a fresh face in his life, and he has acquired a gym-rat routine to help shed the puppy fat he built up in adolescence. As a consequence his body fat, he notes with an athlete’s level of obsessiveness, stands at a most respectable 16pc.
Rejuvenated, he does not like being reminded of his last Masters, where his chances receded early and where he spent much of his two rounds racked by injury worries. “It wasn’t really a great time of year for me,” McIlroy said. “I can only remember chipping in on the 14th. That’s pretty much it. There wasn’t much else to talk about.
“Experience is crucial here. You could be the best putter in the world, but you’re not going to hole anything if you leave yourself on the wrong side of the hole all the time. You have to put yourself in the best possible places, to have a chance to make birdies.”
McIlroy curses that in 100 tournaments, he was not able to improve upon a win rate of two per cent, but he overlooks the fact that those two victories — at Dubai and Quail Hollow — were accomplished with a quality of golf seldom seen in one so callow.
For the 101st, he heads into the pines alongside Rickie Fowler, the Californian of the same age and a character so laid-back he could practically be sunbathing on Magnolia Drive.