It’s Masters week and, as usual, Rory McIlroy’s quest for the career grand slam is a major talking point. To date, just five players have accomplished this feat – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods – and Rory is aiming to be the first European to join golf’s most exclusive club.
When he turned professional in 2007, that the Holywood prodigy was a major champion-in-waiting was the common consensus. And with his high ball-flight favouring a draw, monstrous length, and soft touch around the greens, Europe’s search for a first Green Jacket winner of the new millennium appeared to be over. In fact, Augusta National has often been described as a perfect fit for Rory, and vice-versa.
Rory is widely regarded as one of, if not the best driver in the modern game and there can’t be many courses where long and straight isn’t a good combination. Augusta National famously mow the fairways back towards the tee-boxes which helps to minimise roll-out and place a higher premium on second-shot ball striking, all of which augers well for a man with McIlroy’s skillset.
Traditionally, Augusta has favoured a right-to-left ball flight, especially on holes 10 and 13, but holes two, five, nine and 14 as well. But with modern technology offering greater forgiveness, dog-legs no longer pose the same threat with many players opting to launch the ball over the corners, and a sizeable proportion will opt for less than driver on 10 and 13, safe in the knowledge that they can still comfortably reach. In fact, the most recent staging of the Masters featured a top-four of Tiger Woods, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele, all of whom now favour a fade as the go-to shot with the big stick.
During Masters week, you won’t hear the word “rough” mentioned on television, and that’s because Augusta National doesn’t have “rough”, they have a “first cut” instead. Yes, in theory they are the same, but the first cut is relatively benign, and though the fairway is always preferable, the premium on accuracy is mitigated somewhat. For wildly errant drives, the large pine trees often offer escape routes for those daring and imaginative enough to attempt them.
That’s not to say that Rory doesn’t possess the creativity required to extract himself from potential trouble but there are greater strengths to his game. Sure, great drivers like Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott and Bubba Watson have all won the Green Jacket in the past decade, but we’ve also seen Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Danny Willett and Tiger Woods all prevail, none of whom would consider the driver as their most potent weapon.
As beautiful and perfectly manicured as every inch of the golf course is, it is the greens that elevate Augusta National above all bar a handful of golf courses. Wildly undulating surfaces that run devilishly slick make distance control and accuracy equally important, and all too often McIlroy has appeared befuddled as a wedge shot sails thirty feet long or comes up significantly short. And on a golf course where hitting the correct tier is paramount, poor distance control on approach play is criminal.
Ironically, despite struggling with the flat stick for large portions of his career, Rory has often putted quite well at Augusta. The infamous collapse in 2011 – the only time that he’s genuinely been in contention on the back-nine on Sunday – was largely the result of poor ball striking and the damage had been done by the time he three-putted the 11th and four-putted the 12th.
As somebody invested in pop-psychology and self-help culture, McIlroy has often spoken of treating The Masters as “just another tournament” and being aware and content with the notion that he may never get to slip into a Green Jacket. It’s a nice soundbite, and very much designed to ease pressure on himself, but I’d wager that there’s very few who actually believe it. Surely, deep down, Rory desperately wants to complete the grand-slam and to prove to the whole world that he is still the best player in the game.
But winning majors has never been easy, and with each passing year, more and more top talent is streaming onto the PGA Tour with major championships in their crosshairs. That’s not to say that McIlroy won’t or can’t win The Masters – of course he can – but it’s certainly not the slam-dunk it once appeared.
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