Saturday 21 April 2018

Rory McIlroy takes one giant leap closer to Masters glory

Jordan Spieth may be even hotter than Tiger at Augusta but Rory's hopes of winning a Green Jacket soar after stellar 'training weekend' in Georgia'
Jordan Spieth may be even hotter than Tiger at Augusta but Rory's hopes of winning a Green Jacket soar after stellar 'training weekend' in Georgia'
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Karl MacGinty

One of the greatest recent fallacies in golf is that Rory McIlroy was born to win at Augusta National.

That mantle fits Masters record-breaker Jordan Spieth as snugly as his brand new Green Jacket.

The good news for McIlroy and his prospects one day soon of completing his career Grand Slam is that he has now found a way to make his glory game pay on the most strategically challenging course in golf.

Folklore is littered with big names, like Greg Norman, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf and Ernie Els, who spent much of their life being told victory at The Masters was in their destiny.

Despite having 'the ideal game' for Augusta, each ended up with a frustrating collection of near-misses and a yawning gap in their closet.

Since his Masters debut in 2009, McIlroy has been bombarded with the same talk.

'It's hugely encouraging for Rory McIlroy to post 12-under at the Masters'
'It's hugely encouraging for Rory McIlroy to post 12-under at the Masters'

All he had to do was turn up and hit those sky-high draw shots and the Golden Fleece would be his.


Yet after six visits to Augusta yielded just one top-10 finish, in 2013, and too many cluster muck-ups for comfort, he decided to do what Norman, Miller and Els all wished they'd done: rein back and play it cute at The Masters.

As he stepped towards the cusp of delivering Grand Slam history last Thursday, McIlroy was happy he'd be able to make this more cogent or conservative game-plan work.

But he couldn't be 100pc sure … and it was upon those twin rocks of expectation and uncertainty, the Holywood star's Grand Slam ambitions perished during the first 27 holes of the Masters.

It's chilling to think that as he completed Augusta's front nine in 40 strokes on Friday, McIlroy was one outside the projected cut. Had he merely capitulated and gone home after 36 holes, the World No 1 would have faced precisely the same quandary next year.

Only the Grand Slam pressure would have mounted exponentially. And now, a new and hugely imposing 'Master of Augusta', Spieth must be added to the equation.

Instead, McIlroy readjusted his sights and embarked on the most significant training exercise of his career.

After completing his final 45 holes in 15-under par, a career-best fourth-place finish, yielding $480,000, pales into near-insignificance alongside the confidence McIlroy must take from this performance.

Duly armed, he will be master of his own destiny next April and infinitely better equipped to cope with Grand Slam expectations and anything that proven Augusta 'naturals' like Spieth, Bubba Watson, (a creaking) Tiger or (ageing) Phil Mickelson might throw at him. For, in his pomp, McIlroy is simply unbeatable.

It's hugely encouraging for McIlroy to post 12-under at the Masters with a sterile putter and, in the process, solve a long-standing conundrum on Augusta's par-fives (playing them in 14-under, including two eagles).

Still, he'll be disappointed not to have taken advantage of a soft golf course and receptive greens. If ever playing conditions suited McIlroy at the Masters, it was last weekend, when even the SubAir system couldn't get the greens anywhere near as hard and bouncy as usual.

In this instance, SubAir sucked, but not enough, and balls were leaving pitch marks all the way up to Sunday lunchtime.

Was the system at full power, conspiracy theorists might ask. Were the denizens keen to give McIlroy every chance to make history last weekend?

Of course not. Yet the more forbidding Augusta gets in future, the more it's likely to suit Spieth, whose relative lack of brawn compensated by a powerful analytical brain and a graphic imagination.

We saw the latter at 18 on Saturday when Spieth, supposedly reeling from a double-bogey at the previous hole, played the flop-shot of the century over a greenside bunker and into the fringe, before it trickled obediently onto the green.

As he swept to 18-under on Sunday, equalling the all-time scoring record set by Tiger on a course 510 yards shorter in 1997, the remarkable Texan threw down a gauntlet to McIlroy.

For the record, Spieth is the first pillar-to-post winner at the Masters since 1976 and only the fifth in history, while his haul of 28 birdies was three greater than the record 25 amassed by Mickelson in 2001.

Bottom line, a rival has emerged capable of stretching McIlroy to the limit of his potential over the next 20 years.

That Spieth is almost the polar opposite to the muscular behemoths who currently dominate golf is a source of joy to Graeme McDowell.

"That's a good thing," he explains. "To see a guy coming around who's average build, average size and who hits it average distance, which is 280 or 290 these days. He's not short but he's not the longest player on the planet. He gets it done other ways. That's exciting.

"Rory's comparable to Tiger," adds McDowell. "I don't think Jordan is comparable to Tiger because of the way he plays the game. I think Jordan is more comparable to a Nicklaus or something like that, which is pretty cool."

Imagine throwing the attributes of Spieth and McIlroy into a giant blender, producing a golfer capable of generating the same spine-tingling power as the Irishman and blessed with the Texan's savant short game and sure putting touch.

The result, one suspects, would be Tiger, circa 2000. While we rejoice at the return of Woods to competency at the Masters and find it less difficult to imagine him winning another Major or two, let's not pretend we'll ever see his like again.

McIlroy has hastened the day when he's capable of donning a Green Jacket, while Spieth almost certainly will go on to multiple victories at Augusta. It will be fascinating to see how, if at all, the trapping of celebrity brought by the biggest of Spieth's five professional wins will impact on his persona.

Though he lives in the $2.275 million mansion he recently bought in his home town, Dallas, and despite his extraordinary talent, Spieth remains very grounded, ordinary.

He's still 'going steady' with his high school sweetheart; brings home his washing to his mom and is totally devoted to his family and friends.


Spieth's bond with his younger sister Ellie, who has autism, has made him mature way beyond his 21 years in his appreciation of the simple but overwhelmingly important things in life.

Still, he's hugely ambitious. Second in the latest world rankings issued yesterday, Spieth is determined to replace McIlroy at the summit.

"The ultimate goal is to try and become the No 1 player in the world," he says.

"Rory's got four Majors and that's something I can only dream about. I'll never hit it as far as he does and I have to make up for that somewhere else.

"He's an unbelievably nice guy and carries that World No 1 with class. I don't know if you can call it a rivalry yet but I look forward to getting in the heat of the moment with Rory a few times in the near future."

McIlroy's mutually impressed. "Jordan's much more mature than I was at 21, a hell of a golfer and a great person as well."

Let battle commence at Chambers Bay in Washington State, the venue for June's US Open.

Read more: US Masters winner Jordan Spieth is kept grounded by the struggles of his younger sister

Irish Independent

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