by Phil Rice
As the longer evenings are now with us, most fair-weather golfers are dusting down the clubs and preparing for a summer on the fairways of their local course. It’s also the time for the golf couch potatoes to really intensify their TV viewing. I’m referring of course to the first major of the year and for many their favourite tournament of them all, The US Masters.
Of the four Majors only the US Masters returns to the same venue each year: The hallowed turf that is The Augusta National course in Georgia. Famed for such legendary features as Magnolia Drive and Amen Corner, The Masters conjures up more golfing mystique than any other tournament.
The legendary Jack Nicklaus won The Masters on six occasions, so he speaks with more authority than most when it comes to the Augusta course. “If you hit it long and straight and throw it up high in the air and putt well, you’ll do well here. That’s always been the formula at this golf course, and I don’t think it’s changed.”
When you describe it like that there are a few current pros who come to mind, notably the holder and two time winner Bubba Watson and Aussie super star and winner two years ago Adam Scott, however the golfer that description probably best fits, is world number one Rory McIlroy. He strikes the ball extremely high and very long. In fact if he is putting well, there is probably no golfer in the modern game who is better suited to Augusta.
So why is this the only major that he hasn’t won? In 2011 Rory took a four shot lead into the final round and was in control of affairs standing on the 10th tee, when disaster struck. He snap hooked his drive into someone’s back garden and proceeded to implode dropping six shots in three holes before handing in a final round score of 80.
Most people felt it would be some time before he recovered from the meltdown. But Rory had different ideas. He now describes that occasion as “the most important day of my career.” He adds, “If I had not had the whole unravelling experience, if I had just made a couple of bogeys coming down the stretch and lost by one, I would not have learned as much. But for it all to come apart how it did, I learnt an awful lot. I learnt so much about myself and my game and what I needed to do differently the next time I was in that position.”
As it was, he proved his character just seven weeks later when he won his first major, the US Open by eight shots, and the rest is history. Since 2011 McIlroy’s finishes at The Masters have been 40th, 25th and 8th last year. He puts his failure to win the famed green jacket as a consequence of “trying too hard.” He adds, “It’s the only one left and it is a course I feel I can do well at. I feel I could win multiple times, but getting that first one is the most important thing.”
Only five players have won all four of golf’s majors – Tiger Woods, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. McIlroy says, “Not winning a Masters in my career is unthinkable. If I was to look back as a 60- year-old at my career and had not won a green jacket, I would be very disappointed. Winning all four majors means you are a complete player.”
Rory had an outstanding year in 2014 despite a number of high profile distractions off the course. His much publicised parting from tennis star fiancée Caroline Wozniacki and the legal dispute with his former management company which cost him millions of pounds. “The golf course became my sanctuary, it was where I could get away from everything. I think it will be the same at Augusta because there will be so much hype and build up.”
“I know I won’t be able to wait until Thursday and just get on the golf course and play. There is only so much you can talk about it and then you have to go out and play.” Although he has made a moderate start to 2015, there is no doubt that The Masters is Rory’s primary target this year.
Who would bet against him winning it? The bookies have him as a firm favourite at 5 to1. Other front runners include current US high flyer, Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson, Adam Scott and Swede Henrik Stenson. In addition to McIlroy, other Irish competitors in the field this week are world number 29 Graeme McDowell, Shane Lowry(45) and recent winner at the Honda Tournament, Padraig Harrington who is world ranked 83rd.