Wednesday 22 November 2017

Rory feels right at home as he fine-tunes game for Masters test

But world No 2 may have to contend with high winds forecast for today

Rory McIlroy waits on the 15th tee during a practice round prior to the start of the 2017 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, Georgia. Photo: GETTY
Rory McIlroy waits on the 15th tee during a practice round prior to the start of the 2017 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, Georgia. Photo: GETTY
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Rory McIlroy looked like a man out for a stroll in the park as he completed his final preparations for the 81st Masters at Augusta National yesterday.

Accompanied by Sergio Garcia and Canada's Adam Hadwin, McIlroy played the back nine in the morning calm before the storms blew in later, causing play to be suspended at 1.25pm local time (6.25pm Irish time).

He looked relaxed and at ease with his surroundings, which was no coincidence. Everything he has done in practice over the last few weeks had one purpose - to allow him arrive on the first tee today primed to give this Masters his very best effort.

Prior to the Dell Technologies Match Play, McIlroy spent two days at Augusta with Phil Mickelson and Justin Thomas.

"I wanted to come up here and have fun. It wasn't two days of mapping pin positions and greens and trying to figure out where to leave it if I hit it somewhere, it was one ball, shoot a score, playing some games.

"I really enjoyed it. It was definitely most enjoyable build-up because it was about trying to shoot a score, trying to win a bit of money off the boys.

Prior to the Dell Technologies Match Play, McIlroy spent two days at Augusta with Phil Mickelson (pictured) and Justin Thomas. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Prior to the Dell Technologies Match Play, McIlroy spent two days at Augusta with Phil Mickelson (pictured) and Justin Thomas. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

"That's been the way I prepared, a nice change from the norm and the more holes you can get around here the better," he said.

Read more: Rory McIlroy targeting fast start at Augusta and history strongly suggests he should

By Tuesday McIlroy had tallied up 99 holes in practice over the course, spread over a couple of weeks, and nine yesterday brought it up to 108.

"The more you can make Augusta National feel like your home golf course, the better; just to be comfortable in your surroundings, playing it as if it is your home course and that's the way I am trying to approach it this week," he said.

The world number two stands on the threshold of glory for the third consecutive year.

His fourth Major win, and his second US PGA title captured in August 2014 left him needing 'just' the Masters for a career Grand Slam.

McIlroy is still waiting to slip his arms into that coveted Green Jacket, following his fourth place finish in 2015 and tied-10 last year. Pressure? Lots of it, and from all sides, not least from his own desires and expectations.

Ironically, the rib injury he suffered in South Africa which caused him to sit out tournament action and allow time for healing, may work to his advantage.

McIlroy is "lightly-raced" in horse racing parlance, with just 15 competitive rounds played in 2017.

Absence

The enforced absence from the Tour kept him out of the limelight to some extent and allowed time to work on his short game. That, and maturity combined to make him feel pretty positive about the challenges to come.

"Without all the hype and the buildup - I'm not sure if I've shielded it, or if it has been more quiet, but I feel more relaxed going in, not as wound up.

"My patience could get very short the weeks before the Masters sometimes and I could say a few things I didn't mean, just because I was in a mood with the Masters coming up, a little bit of stress there.

"This year, I've been good, happy, relaxed, not stressed about it too much. I'm in a good frame of mind."

That frame of mind will be tested, as will Shane Lowry's and the other 92 starters today, with winds forecast to average 25mph and to gust as high as 40mph. The first task is survival through today and tomorrow because the weather is expected to provide excellent golfing conditions at the weekend.

Read more: Padraig Harrington - Rory McIlroy is piling the pressure on himself as he looks to complete Grand Slam

No matter how much the weather affects the course, McIlroy knows he must improve his putting stats on these notoriously difficult greens.

Last year he averaged 30.75 putts per round, ranking him 37th. His scoring average was 71.4 per cent, 15th overall.

On this course, particularly in adverse weather conditions, a sharp short game can save shots. Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee noted that winners at Augusta typically average no more than 17 bogeys through the week. Double-bogeys are score-killers, as McIlroy knows only too well.

"You don't need to come out and shoot 65 in the first day but at the same time, you're better off shooting something under par just to get yourself off to a nice start.

"But yeah, as I said, just don't want to go chasing it on this golf course because if you have to chase it, that's when things can start to go wrong."

Shane Lowry comes in under the radar. "I've only played five tournaments this year. I haven't had that many good finishes, but I feel like I'm doing all right.

"It's one of those courses where you have to try and hit as many good shots as you can and see where you finish at the end of the week," he said.

This is the Masters.

Shocks are guaranteed, but normally we expect them to occur on the back nine on Sunday.

Last night's news that Dustin Johnson, the favourite, had fallen and hurt his back in the house where he is staying for the week came out of left field.

Johnson came to Augusta with three wins in the bag, and his game in impressive shape.

Little did he know when he said at his media conference that "anything can happen," that he would have that fall and require treatment before a decision could be taken about his participation in today's first round.

Selections - Top four: 1 Rory McIlroy 8/1; 2 Dustin Johnson 6/1; 3 Justin Rose 25/1; 4 Jordan Spieth 7/1

The Masters, Live, Sky Sports 1, 7.00pm

Irish Independent

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