Rory McIlroy has been making a jigsaw in his rented house for this week. The missing piece in the Northern Irishman’s glittering career – a Masters win – can be fitted into place on Sunday. Twelve months ago, McIlroy never really got in the mix when presented with his first chance to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in completing golf’s career grand slam.
A sluggish start – he was three-over after 27 holes – saw to that, though he recovered well to finish on 12 under. In claiming fourth spot behind Jordan Spieth, in fact, he chalked up his best effort in seven Augusta National appearances.
On reflection, McIlroy reckons he allowed himself to get caught up in the pre-event hype that surrounded that bid to etch his name in the record books. This time around, he is trying to take things more in his stride.
There was no pre-event visit. He reckons he knows the course well enough and believes the challenge doesn’t differ dramatically from year to year. His two practice rounds so far this week have been matches rather than hitting lots of different shots. Today’s eve-of-event Par-3 Contest is being skipped to allow him to focus solely on the main task this week.
“I’m very happy with where my game is and really just looking forward to getting going on Thursday,” said McIlroy. “I’m not trying to put too much emphasis on it or too much pressure on myself. I really feel like I play my best golf when I’m more relaxed, when I’m having fun out there and I’m not not overdoing it, not overthinking it. That’s the reason why I didn’t come up early. It’s a special event but I don’t want to treat it any differently. I want to come here and prepare the best way possible for me and that’s why, the last couple of days, I’ve played one ball in matches.”
The first was a head-to-head affair against the lanky Englishman, Chris Wood. McIlroy won that won in style with a hole-in-one at the 16th. Yesterday, he partnered Andy Sullivan against Jamie Donaldson and Bernd Wiesberger on the front nine before Matt Fitzpatrick took over from Sullivan in that fourball on the back nine.
“I’m trying not to hit so many shots off tees, into greens, around the greens,” added McIlroy. “I’m just trying to approach it more in a relaxed way and not overthink it, not overdo it. You can obviously relax too much. But, on the flip side, you can consume yourself with it, which I don’t think is a good idea, either.”
McIlroy said he felt a bit “exposed in terms of eyeballs on me” 12 months ago. He’s happy, therefore, to see the spotlight more on defending champion Spieth and world No 1 Jason Day this time around.
“It’s all about going out there over the next four days and executing the shots the way I need to and being mentally strong,” he said. “I really think it is important, especially for me, to get off to a good start as that been the thing that’s held me back the last couple of years. I knew as soon as this tournament finished last year that I was going to prepare a little bit differently for it this year. I’ve started to realise that this is probably one of the courses that we play all year that you can be super‑aggressive on and take it at pins. I feel like I’ve learnt the balance of this course over the years with that.
“I definitely feel like I’ve got everything I need to become a Masters champion. But, with every year that passes that I don’t, it will become increasingly more difficult, so there’s no time like the present to get it done.”