Thursday 18 January 2018

Dermot Gilleece: Watershed realisation makes Green Jacket a matter of time for McIlroy

Rory McIlroy. 'He has clearly embraced a formidable journey, heartache and all' Photo: Getty
Rory McIlroy. 'He has clearly embraced a formidable journey, heartache and all' Photo: Getty

Dermot Gilleece

With the exception of those old dogs who have tasted glory, a Masters challenge can be viewed as a classic case of the destination being more pleasurable than the journey. On which basis, Rory McIlroy has reached a watershed this weekend at Augusta National, irrespective of what transpires today.

He has clearly embraced a formidable journey, heartache and all. And he has done so with short-game skills as impressive as anything I have seen from the great Seve Ballesteros around this treacherous terrain.

Fresh in the memory is a stunning up-and-down from the right of the 11th green on Thursday, and an equally impressive effort over the bunker short of the 16th pin on Friday. These are the shots that earn Green Jackets.

Listening to Butch Harmon commentating on Sky TV brought to mind the words of his father, Claude, the 1948 Masters champion. "Reading an Augusta green," he said, "is like reading the small type in a contract. If you don't read it with painstaking care, you are likely to be in trouble." And that was more than 30 years before bentgrass replaced Bermuda for considerably slicker putting surfaces. In the words of Dave Pelz, "Augusta is a short-game paradise."

The strain on a player's blade, however, can be eased appreciably by precise chipping and pitching. We have seen that not even Jordan Spieth can hole 20-footers around Augusta on an ongoing basis.

It is fascinating to recall that when Vijay Singh became Masters champion in 2000, an opening 72 containing 36 putts left him four strokes off the lead. Then came putting rounds of 27, 31 and 30 as he swept to a three-stroke victory over Ernie Els.

"If you asked me two years ago, I don't think I could win this the way I was putting," said Singh afterwards. "I think an attitude change was a big boost to that."

A measure of McIlroy's change of attitude could be gleaned from his reaction on Friday evening to cruel luck on his closing hole. When his arrow-straight approach hit the pin, it bounced back and ruinously right, rather than landing near the hole. Which led to a bogey rather than a possible eagle.

Afterwards, there was no self-pity as he talked of a "day when you had to battle". And he went on to detail his great joy in preparing around Augusta for this challenge. "It's always such fun to get out there and play," he said of visits that led to 36 holes on one day and 27 on another.

The fact that he could still be one over par after hitting only 19 out of 36 greens in regulation in the first two rounds tells its own story of short-game expertise. And his quiet acceptance of adversity spoke volumes for the extent to which a one-time weakness has become an admirable strength.

American sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who guided Mike Weir and Trevor Immelman to Masters victories, captured the essence of the challenge. "It's a wonderful course to play golf on and it's there to be had, if you can let yourself have it," he said. "But guys know that winning will mean being invited back forever. And there can be such an urge to get everything perfect, that you screw it up."

Which, almost inevitably, brings Greg Norman to mind as a Masters perfectionist. Too late, he finally became aware of this crippling truth when, looking at playing partner Jose-Maria Olazabal walk up the 18th towards a second Masters title in 1999, he found himself thinking: "It's as easy as that. He's won the tournament."

McIlroy has already done the groundwork for such a triumph. We need but wait for it to happen.

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