McIlroy came out on top at Bay Hill on Sunday to claim his first triumph since September 2016, boosting his confidence as he prepares for a fourth attempt to become just the sixth player to complete a career Grand Slam by claiming victory at Augusta National in just over a fortnight’s time.
Thanks to him making five birdies in the last six holes in closing with a 64, the 28-year-old triumphed by three shots in the end in Orlando, but it was riveting stuff as Woods made a charge, getting to within a shot of the lead before driving out of bounds at the 16th, and Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson also battled it out with McIlroy.
“I honestly don’t watch a lot of golf on the TV, but I’ve been sitting on the couch the last couple of weekends watching the PGA Tour events because Tiger has been in contention and, for about an hour there on Sunday, I thought that’s as good as it gets,” said Lawrie, speaking at Gleneagles as he was named as an ambassador along with Carly Booth for the inaugural European Team Championships at the Perthshire resort in August.
“Tiger was up there and Rory was up there and it was just a bit disappointing when Tiger hit it out of bounds at 16 as the whole thing went a bit flat. But all credit to Rory for the way he played in the final round. Next to Tiger, Rory for me is the next person that moves the needle. When he’s playing like that and is in that mood, he takes some stopping.”
The victory has seen McIlroy installed as the new favourite for the season’s opening major, with Woods, pictured, a four-time Masters champion, having also prompted his odds to tumble with three top-15 finishes in a row despite the fact he only returned in December following his fourth back procedure in less than three years.
“I think it is remarkable how quickly he’s got himself straight back into things,” said Lawrie. “And it’s his swing speed and ball speed that is really amazing as it’s almost quicker than it was before. Even I can’t understand how he is able to go from how he was physically to hitting it flat out as quickly as he has.
“As for his short game, I think what we are seeing now is backing up what he said about how it was what he was working on in his swing that was causing his pitching and chipping problems. I think he has the angle of attack in his swing sorted out now. It wasn’t so much the yips. It was more of a technique thing and now his chipping is brilliant again.
“It’s great to have him back. I’ve watched a lot of him the last couple of weeks and I will tell you what he has been very impressive. If Tiger stays healthy and Rory keeps playing the way he did at the weekend, I think it’s going to be phenomenal at the Masters. I can’t wait for it already and, though maybe not a Tom Watson at Turnberry [where the American came close to claiming a sixth Open at the age of 59 in 2009], it would still be pretty amazing if Tiger did pull it off at Augusta.”
While unlikely to generate the same excitement surrounding the opening men’s major, both Lawrie and Booth are confident the ground-breaking event later in the year at Gleneagles will prove popular with players and spectators alike. Part of the multi-sport Glasgow 2018 European Championships, it will see male and female professionals playing together for equal prize-money in men’s, women’s and mixed team tournaments.
“I think it will tick a lot of boxes for people and I don’t see any reason why there can’t be more events like this,” said Lawrie of a tournament being staged on the PGA Centenary Course, where the Aberdonian won the Johnnie Walker Championship in 2012. “[European Tour chief executive] Keith Pelley is obviously trying different formats and this might be the one that really appeals to people as it is pretty cool and unique.”
For Booth, who grew up nearby in Comrie, playing in the new event and next year’s Solheim Cup on the same course would be extremely satisfying. “It is great to be part of the event with the ambassadorial role but obviously I would love to play in it and the Solheim Cup as well,” said the two-time winner on the Ladies European Tour.
“I grew up playing a lot of golf at Gleneagles, including a few times with my big brother, Wallace, and I’d love to play competitive golf here. In terms of the Solheim Cup, I need to produce a few good results this year and the start of next year. The fact that I’m from here and know the course would hopefully be an advantage [for a pick].”