Rory McIlroy comes to amateur Bradley Neil’s aid in week he could make slam history
As if Bradley Neil’s dream of being a 19-year-old amateur playing at Augusta National was not fantastical enough, then Rory McIlroy made the experience in the hallowed confines on Friday all the more surreal when coming up with the offer of a practice round during Masters week.
Neil would have ripped McIlroy’s arm off but for the fact the world No 1 will require both if, in two weeks’ time, he is to become just the sixth player to win the career slam. Instead the young Scot graciously accepted while trying not to seem overly excited. After all, they do not really approve of whooping and hollering in that particular clubhouse.
“Imagine it, getting to play with Rory in the week when he could make history,” Neil said. “We had a good chat in the breakfast room and he kindly said we could have nine holes together, probably on the Monday or Tuesday. Listening to him, Rory knows the chance he has at the Masters.
“I bet it’s all he’s been thinking about for the last few months — it’s certainly all I’ve been thinking about.”
In truth, the boy from Blairgowrie has had Georgia on his mind since winning at Royal Portrush last June.
In golfing terms, victory at the Amateur Championship makes Willy Wonka’s golden ticket seem like a Tesco coupon. As well as Tuesday’s Georgia Cup in Atlanta – where he will play an 18-hole match against the US Amateur champion, South Korea’s Gunn Yang – it guaranteed entry to last year’s Open at Hoylake and this year’s US Open at Chambers Bay.
But the Masters is the ultimate prize, coming with that priceless key to the game’s most exclusive gates. And not only for the second week of April, neither.
“You are allowed to play five times in the months before the tournament. I played a couple of rounds in January and made it up to five this week,” Neil said. “I can’t describe it – it’s heaven, a golfer’s paradise. I’ve done it all. Tried to play Tiger’s chip from the back of the 16th and went into the trees on the 10th where Bubba [Watson] played that banana shot. It’s been amazing, but it’s been for a purpose.
“I wanted to get over the 'wow’ factor, or at least get used to it. As Rory says, the guys who play it year in year out treat it like it’s their first time whenever they visit. Rory says you learn something new every time you play it. That’s why it’s so cool and I can’t wait to get back there on Wednesday. I’ll play straight through to the event starts then. Cramming in as much as I can.”
Neil also has a practice round arranged with Justin Rose and will try to link up with Adam Scott. He met the pair at Hoylake and, with Rose especially, has kept in close contact. “Justin, Rory and Adam have been fantastic with their advice,” Neil said. “They were once in the exact same place as me and know what I’m going through.”
These superstar acquaintances were the great positive he took from that Wirral week, although it was a humbling experience in the main.
“I shot 11‑over, missed the cut by miles and hit shots I haven’t hit since I was 13,” Neil said. “Looking back, that was the first time I’d been on a stage with millions watching. It was pressure I’d never felt and it was obviously a bit too much.
“But it made me learn how to conduct myself a lot better. I was frustrated, wanted to let it out, knew I couldn’t and so found my way of dealing with it. I look forward to putting it to the test at Augusta. I’ve got a good friend [Phil McKenna] on the bag and if I start getting angry or taking the fun out of it he’ll quickly remind me that I need to enjoy every minute and not get bogged down with the tournament I’m playing in or who I’m playing with. I have to concentrate on the details and be precise.”
Yes, Neil is adamant he will not be a goggle-eyed kid who is there only “to make up the numbers”. There are ambitions. Lofty ones. Peter McEvoy remains the only British amateur to make the Masters cut way back in 1978, but no Briton has ever won the Silver Cup, presented to the low amateur who makes the cut. It is Neil’s goal to take his place in the Butler Cabin on that Sunday evening.
“I want that low amateur trophy,” Neil said. “Yeah, the standard is extraordinarily high but there’s no reason why I can’t. The course suits me; you need to be long off the tee and I love to go with the driver. At Hoylake, you had to be more conservative, with irons off some of the tees, but I like to be aggressive and that’s what Augusta favours.
“And I’d like to think I’ve got the imagination to play those shots around the greens. If it wasn’t for my short game I would have got absolutely trounced at the Amateur.
“I’m going to have a lot of support there and want to give them something to cheer.”
The Neils will descend en masse; the home he is renting will contain 12 people. On the Sunday before, Neil will, as is his right, stay at the Crow’s Nest, the cosy sleeping quarters in the clubhouse’s attic.
“I want to do everything and to be able to say I did everything,” Neil said. “And what would really top it off is if Woods announces that he’s going to enter. To play in the same Masters as Tiger would make it even more special.”