Friday 20 July 2018

Time for McIlroy to turn his Masters dream into reality

Rory McIlroy putts during the WGC Match Play in Texas, only time will tell if his putting inconsistencies have been rectified in time for Augusta. Photo: Getty Images
Rory McIlroy putts during the WGC Match Play in Texas, only time will tell if his putting inconsistencies have been rectified in time for Augusta. Photo: Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

Late on Sunday afternoon in the 2008 US Masters, Rory McIlroy was a rapt television viewer as Trevor Immelman went up the 18th fairway with a three-stroke lead. That was when his playing partner, Brandt Snedeker, shook the South African's hand, put an arm around his shoulder and said: "Great playing. Now go on up there and win."

On reaching the final green, Immelman walked over and marked his ball. Suddenly he found himself thinking: "Why is he [Snedeker] saying that?" He later recalled: "I was so much in the present moment that I asked my caddie how we were doing. And he says 'we've got a three-shot lead on [Tiger] Woods.'"

By his own admission, Immelman then plunged from "total peace of mind, to how can I not five-putt this green?" Though he got down in two, the distraction of Snedeker's well-intentioned urging was enough to throw him - it being Masters Sunday.

Five months later, 19-year-old McIlroy stood in the middle of the 72nd fairway at Crans-sur-Sierre with a sand-wedge in his hand. He needed a par to become the youngest winner of the Omega European Masters, so surpassing the achievement of Seve Ballesteros 31 years previously. Through a combination of inexperience and adrenalin, however, his approach went flying through the green from where he recovered to six feet and missed the putt.

In the resultant play-off, he and French journeyman, Jean-Francois Lucquin, halved the same hole in par before going up the 18th for the final time. On this occasion, with a two-foot par-putt to prolong the battle, McIlroy saw the ball agonisingly touch the hole and stay above ground. While the rest of us gasped, Lucquin couldn't believe his good fortune.

That putting lapse during McIlroy's first full season on tour has remained with me despite his numerous successes over the intervening years. It created a nagging doubt about his comfort with the blade, associated more with self-belief than frailty under pressure.

Which, taken with Tom Watson's assertion that sound putting is an absolute pre-requisite of successful scrambling, could explain his apparent inability to grind out scores against the odds. And it planted the suspicion that because of inconsistent putting, he might continue through his career as a serious under-achiever.

Have the heroics of last weekend at Bay Hill changed all that? With such a crucial element of the game, only time will tell, as mixed fortunes on the WGC Match Play greens have since indicated. Still, the signs are most encouraging, especially if we consider the reaction of Justin Rose, his playing partner who witnessed a stunning back-nine of 31 to a final round of 64.

On being asked when he last saw McIlroy putt so well, the Englishman thought for a moment before replying: "Never". Rose then added: "Rory always makes it look easy when he's playing well. After missing a few good chances early in the round, I think he just stayed really patient and got rewarded when putting beautifully from the sixth hole onwards. He didn't doubt himself, which is key."

Augusta has delivered champions who would not have been considered outstanding putters, which runs counter to the general perception of the Masters challenge. But is it true?

There was no doubting Vijay Singh as one of the most suspect putters to don a green jacket, which he did in 2000. "If you asked me two years ago, I don't think I could win this the way I was putting," he admitted afterwards. "Augusta's greens are so severe, that if you're not a good putter, you're not going to win. Simple as that."

In the context of a Bay Hill transformation which McIlroy credited to advice from one-time master putter, Brad Faxon, it is fascinating to recall David Duval's assessment of Singh. "I think an attitude change was a big factor for him," said his Augusta partner of the final day. "He putted wonderfully, probably better than he played tee to green." Only a poor opening day on the greens caused Singh to finish 45th in the overall putting statistics.

The Fijian explained: "I tried to tell myself, 'you're going to enjoy hitting these putts'. That's the kind of attitude you need to have. I read a lot of books about it that say if you keep talking to yourself, you're going to be able to do it. I guess it helped." Either way, it illustrated the power of mind over matter, except that two months later, Singh had switched to the belly putter.

Putting frailties must also be considered when we engage in perennial speculation as to how Christy O'Connor might have handled Augusta National, had he chosen to accept even one of the 16 Masters invitations which came his way.

Tony Jacklin, who became the first European to top a Masters leaderboard when he led after the eighth hole of the third round in 1967, had a definite view on this.

"Christy was undoubtedly a great ball-striker but never a great putter in my book," said Jacklin. "And Augusta is all about putting. At best, he would have been a hit-and-run competitor and you're never going to do much good unless you actually commit to living over there."

Easing pressure on the blade, however, can be achieved by ways other than those of the mind. For instance, despite an unusually high closing round of 75, Immelman managed to equal an Augusta record by carding only five bogeys over his 72 holes, so matching the select quartet of Jimmy Demaret (1940), Jack Nicklaus (1965), Ben Crenshaw (1995) and Phil Mickelson (2004).

Meanwhile, given the location of McIlroy's recent resurgence, he could have done worse than note the words of Arnold Palmer, who observed: "Putting is like wisdom - partly a natural gift and partly the accumulation of experience." But Faxon's miraculous words of enlightenment stemmed from a concept a lot more basic.

"Tell me what you think about when you're driving the ball," he asked. "I don't think of anything in particular," came the reply. "I just hit it." Which, incidentally, is how Pádraig Harrington remembers the glorious five-wood second shot he hit to the 71st hole at Royal Birkdale in 2008, when setting up an eagle three en route to a second successive Open Championship.

Faxon went on: "So why do I see you with all these contraptions when you're practising your putting? Why is your pre-shot putting routine so mechanical, when you're such a natural player? Why don't you just hit it?"

Which brought to mind an off-course Augusta scene towards the end of the 1989 Masters, while Scott Hoch was spending far too long over a 30-inch putt in a play-off for the title. "Hit it!" shouted Crenshaw at a television screen in the media centre. But Hoch had ruinously over-analysed the challenge and by the next hole, Nick Faldo was champion.

In the words of American sports psychologist, Bob Rotella, the key is to get mind, body and emotions to do what you want them to do in a situation of desperate need. "It's hard to believe that it's not difficult," he said, "but you've got to dream about doing ridiculously testing things, like holing putts from off the green, while imagining people telling you how wonderful you are."

McIlroy grew up watching Tiger Woods realise his Augusta dreams. It's time he brought reality to dreams of his own.

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