Sunday 25 August 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Rory McIlroy tries to block noise but ticking clock can still be heard'

He may not yet be 30 but the Holywood star may never head to Masters in better shape

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays a shot during a practice round prior to the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland plays a shot during a practice round prior to the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In Michael Bamberger's classic book 'Men in Green', Arnold Palmer is quoted on how golf's Majors eventually belittle even the greats of the game.

The loss of that intangible called 'edge' comes to them all in the end, Palmer insisting: "You have to get in there and you have to stay in there because, once you get out, it's very hard to get back in.

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"It's happened to every golfer. (Ben) Hogan. (Jack) Nicklaus. Every golfer. It's just a question of when."

Almost five years on from Valhalla, everything about Rory McIlroy this week feels like a purposeful commitment to keeping that theory silent. To blocking out the noise.

His Tuesday press conference rippled, thus, with what felt like a marriage of prudence and faintly clunking philosophy.

The "I am not my score; I am not my results" proclamation resonated more as some kind of invoiced line from a psychologist's manual than any persuasive statement of liberation.

History yawns in front of McIlroy everywhere he looks at Augusta National. Here and only here can he secure that career Grand Slam.

There is, thus, no alternative narrative, no fire escape from the stubborn stress of trying to join the high priests of this game.

McIlroy even has the voices of his peers beginning to crowd in on him.

Phenomenal

Phil Mickelson: "He's had such a phenomenal start to the year, he's been playing such great golf consistently, week in and week out; I think contending will be a given. He'll be in contention."

Justin Rose: "I think if anyone's been dominant, it's been Rory in the last couple of months."

Jon Rahm: "Rory is playing unbelievable golf. I mean, he's playing the best golf he's played in a long time, really good golf. And it seems like his putting has been a lot better. If Rory is hitting the ball the way he is and he putts good, he's tough to beat."

So what does he need to do? Maybe, above all, remember to breathe.

McIlroy has all the tools to be a Masters champion. His length off the tee and high ball flight should be potent weapons when teeing off alongside Rickie Fowler and Cameron Smith at 4.15pm Irish time today on a course still drying out from Tuesday's monsoon.

But one little-known statistic from last year's tournament was his rank as the second-best putter over the four days.

And, in 2017, McIlroy was ranked 11th, some step up on his figures from the previous six years of 37th, 32nd, 49th, 27th, 41st and 42nd.

So the consensus that an often cold putter is the one, big flaw in his game just hasn't applied to his last two visits here when finishing tied 7th (2017) and tied 5th (2018).

As McIlroy insists: "It's been definitely more patience and resolve that's been the lacking characteristic" when a round has gotten away from him at Augusta.

That was seen most luridly in 2011 of course, but McIlroy's last truly big blow-up here was a Saturday 77 in 2016.

It's six years since he finished outside the top 10 and he spoke almost poetically of this place on Tuesday, of playing a quiet practice round last week and it feeling "very similar to walking into an empty church".

That's the kind of line only somebody with his appreciation of history could summon.

Hence, for all that fresh commitment to meditation, ball juggling, mind training, and the expertise of somebody like Dr Clayton Skaggs, nobody knows better than McIlroy that little he says or does can really subdue the sense of a clock ticking loudly here.

That may not seem entirely rational or fair for someone not yet 30, but can he honestly expect ever to arrive at a Masters tournament in better shape than now?

Posting seven top-10 finishes in eight tournaments played this season, including that victory at Sawgrass, marks him out as the obvious form player and favourite coming to Augusta.

But this is a field of superstars. The challenge isn't simply to silence those doubts that crawl under the skin. It's also to outplay the best players in the world.

Sentiment and nostalgia will be willing Tiger Woods towards a fifth Green Jacket and his victory at East Lake last September put the signature on one of modern sport's most extraordinary comebacks.

Woods also contended strongly at The Open and US PGA last year, but Palmer's words seem more relevant to Tiger than maybe any other player in the field.

It is, after all, 14 years since his last Masters win, 11 since the last of his 14 Majors. Is it really feasible to think that, as Palmer put it, he can "get back in" after all that time?

We think not. Tiger's Masters were won, largely, through inordinate length off the tee, an advantage he no longer holds on the field.

World numbers one and two, Justin Rose and Dustin Johnson, should still be around come Sunday whilst Jordan Spieth's extraordinary record here marks him down, good form or not, as an obvious course specialist.

Then again, the trouble with a Masters preview is the seduction it carries for drawing sweeping conclusions.

Only long-hitters can win? Nobody told Zach Johnson or Trevor Immelman in '07 or '08.

Only the strongest mentally? What about Bubba's tears then in '12 and '14.

Only superstars beat a superstar field? Danny Willett anyone? Mike Weir? Larry Mize?

Become

Patrick Reed seeks to become the first back-to-back champion since Tiger in 2002.

Brooks Koepka comes chasing his fourth Major, Justin Thomas his second.

Shane Lowry is here for the fourth time, hoping to make a second 'cut'. If that new driver works, Lowry's short-game craft could take him anywhere this week.

And how about Mickelson - a three-time champion - now closing on 49?

Well, if old Tom Watson could almost win the 2009 Open while six weeks short of his 60th and nursing an artificial hip, why not?

The world's best are crowding around this place, yet all somehow - for now - in the shadow of McIlroy's shot at history.

He tees off directly behind the inevitable Woods carnival today, reading the right books, spouting the right wall mottos, purposefully separating the golfer from the man. But can that separation survive an Augusta weekend?

Asked on Tuesday if he'd thought about that inevitable moment when all this order in his mind will, inevitably, come under pressure, he responded: "No. No, I haven't thought about it. I guess there's a lot of bridges to cross until we get to that point."

Can he win? Absolutely. But only if that "edge" Palmer spoke about is written all over McIlroy come Sunday.

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