In the build up to this week’s 80th US Masters, Ireland’s leading golfer is happy to be able to prepare for Augusta under the radar
by Phil Rice
For the past four years the build up to the US Masters has been dominated by interest in Rory McIlroy. Last year the publicity surrounded whether the world number one could complete his slam of the four majors. He had won the two previous majors, the British Open and the US PGA and was clear favourite for the Masters.
He also courted publicity by inviting One Direction’s Niall Horan to caddy for him in the pre-tournament par 3 competition. Now he realises that all the peripheral hype distracted him from the important job in hand.
While clearly Rory would prefer to be world number one rather than his current ranking of number three, there have been some benefits.
Notably he is not the primary focus of the world’s media and instead he is afforded the time to concentrate on preparing for “the tournament I want to win more than any other.”
Jason Day and Jordan Speith, the world number one and two respectively, have hogged the limelight this year and McIlroy is quite happy for that to be the case.
He has even taken the surprise decision to avoid the par 3 competition this year as he feels that it is an unnecessary distraction the day before the main event. McIlroy’s demotion in the rankings has certainly not diminished his belief that his personal “slam” of the majors is eminently achievable this year.
“I’m going in there with the same objective, same mindset and I’m still trying to achieve the same thing,” he says. “I don’t think it makes much of a difference at all whether I’m going in there being talked about or if I’m not, I’m still feeling the same way.”
He adds,“Maybe I’m putting pressure on myself but I know what it would mean to me and I know what it would mean to my career to win.” Rory has always had the ability to embrace life beyond the golf course and that lack of obsession has been one of his most endearing traits that has made him universally popular.
His recent engagement to Erica Stoll has provided further stability and contentment that is clearly evident. He decided not to practice on the course in Augusta last weekend as, “You can’t learn as much in practice rounds as actual tournaments,” he claimed.
“Everything I’ve learned there has been during competitive play because there’s nothing like missing it in the wrong spot when it really matters, to teach you not to do it again.
“That’s why this year I’m not going up there early.”
McIlroy believes that his performances at the Masters are on an upward curve, “I feel like I’ve improved every year at Augusta.” “I don’t feel anyone needs to tell me how to play the course. I’ve played there enough to know that.” In recent events McIlroy has played some outstanding golf but has thrown in one or two destructive shots that have prevented him from winning.
“I know what I need to do to win at Augusta. It’s about executing my game plan and hitting the right shots at the right time.”
There is no doubt that the burning ambition remains as strong as ever. The melt-down he experienced over the back nine of the Masters four years ago still haunts him and he is determined to erase that from his memory. The competition will be more intense than ever this year with the greatest number of serious contenders in recent memory.
Jason Day has won his last two events and is in outstanding form. His recent narrow victory over McIlroy in the semi final of the World Matchplay elevated him to world number one, and he fully justifies his status as favourite.
Last year’s champion Jordan Speith has a game which suits the Augusta course, with his superb touch around the greens.
Bubba Watson, the two time winner of the event, will probably be in the shake up on the back nine come Sunday evening, along with in-form Aussie Adam Scott and world number four Rickie Fowler.
However as US commentator David Feherty says: “When Rory plays well, it’s good luck to all the others.”
McIlroy remains the most naturally gifted player in the world and he possesses an extra gear beyond all his other talented rivals. Ireland is also represented by world number 32, Shane Lowry, who has had a quiet time of late but has one of the best short games in world of golf.
Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke are also competing, neither of whom would claim to have a game that is ideally suited to the unique demands of Augusta.