As far as sub-plots go for this year’s Masters, few will carry more intrigue than Rory McIlroy’s latest attempt to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods in the most elite club in golf. Can the four-time Major winner become a Grand Slam champion? At just 31 years of age, you’d be a brave person to bet against McIlroy, and perhaps this Masters year, a November date like no other, might just play into the Holywood man’s hands.
In 2019, McIlroy drove up Magnolia Lane in the form of his life having achieved a level of consistency many believed he couldn’t, with six top-6 finishes from six starts before finally getting over the line in top spot at The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass. Favouritism followed at Augusta but a first round 73 set the tone for another disappointing week amongst the azaleas as McIlroy saved a 68 for Sunday, his best round of the week, before finishing outside the top-20.
This year McIlroy makes his way to the Masters without the expectation of such a formidable form-line. Since the restart post-lockdown, he’s managed just two top-10s, one at the reduced field Tour Championship and one at the US Open where a Sunday 75 robbed him of any hopes of adding to his four Major titles. Where arguably McIlroy had peaked too early for a Masters in 2019, there are no such fears this time around but encouragingly, he’ll come in rested off the back of a week at the Zozo Championship at Sherwood where he clocked an astounding 29 birdies in 72 holes. Sure, there were far too many errors amongst the madness of that birdie fest but there was more than enough good golf to suggest that McIlroy’s game is trending in the right direction ahead of a hopeful first visit to the Butler Cabin.
“I look at my experience at Augusta as a journey, a journey that started back in ’09 when I played my first Masters,” says McIlroy. “I had a great chance in 2011 and I’ve had some chances after that but every year I go back to Augusta I get more-and-more comfortable with the golf course, with what I am trying to achieve.
“It’s all about putting myself in a position to win on the back nine on Sunday and that is all I am thinking about – just give myself another chance and see how I handle it.”
To suggest McIlroy is coming in under the radar would be a stretch considering what’s on the line should he drape himself in green but with tournament favourite Bryson DeChambeau dominating the pre-tournament discussion and Tiger Woods entering the week as defending champion, the spotlight certainly isn’t hovering exclusively over Rory’s head.
“I like this more. There’s not as much hype, not as much, yeah, just noise. I sort of like this better,” McIlroy admits.
Nobody doubts McIlroy’s got the game to win at Augusta. His natural draw and high ball-flight is tailormade for the Georgia layout while cooler November conditions will play to his strengths even more. This will be McIlroy 12th trip to Augusta so experience isn’t an issue either while this year McIlroy makes the journey with a new-found perspective only fatherhood can bring.
To suggest that the birth of his daughter Poppy could prove the difference may seem a little far-fetched but perhaps a career Grand Slam won’t seem so grand after all given McIlroy’s exposure to life’s bigger picture of late. And without that weight of expectation falling on his head, how spectacular would it be that the long-time heir apparent to Tiger Woods’ throne would find himself in the Butler Cabin come Sunday with Woods himself, draping a green jacket over McIlroy’s shoulders and with it, golfing immortality.
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