Rory McIlroy couldn’t resist winding up Tiger Woods before following him into the plush media centre at Augusta National. “That’s funny,” said McIlroy, smiling, of Woods and Phil Mickelson having played nine holes together in the morning, a scenario that once seemed as unlikely as Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un sitting down for afternoon tea. “I walked past Tiger on the range, and I said, ‘I never thought I would see the day: Tiger and Phil playing a practice round at Augusta’. So we had a bit of a laugh about that.”
It was another chat the Northern Irishman had, though, before making that journey for his pre-Masters press conference that would have helped focus him for this week’s task at hand, namely his fourth attempt to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and, of course, Woods as career Grand Slam winners. “I made a point to go up to Sergio [Garcia] this week and tell him to enjoy tonight and the Champions’ Dinner and hosting that,” said the 28-year-old of the Spaniard having earned that privilege by breaking his major duck at the 74th attempt here 12 months ago on the day Seve Ballesteros would have turned 60. “It’s a great privilege to be able to do that, and hopefully I get to do it one day.”
McIlroy has certainly prepared thoroughly for this week’s bid to claim that coveted Green Jacket. “I played 54 holes on Wednesday and Thursday last week,” he revealed heading into his tenth appearance in the season’s opening major. “I played 36 a couple of weeks before that, so I feel as prepared as I ever have.”
Add in the fact he recently returned to winning ways with victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill and McIlroy will definitely be bounding on to the first tee on Thursday with a spring in his step. “I feel like everything’s coming together very nicely, and hopefully all of the good things that I’ve seen in my competitive play and my practice and my preparation to good work over the next few days,” he added.
Both Hogan and Sam Snead became Masters champions at their tenth attempt while Arnold Palmer, pictured below, won for the first time here at 28. “There’s a lot of different comparisons you could make,” said McIlroy to those encouraging statistics being pointed out to him. “But it’s all really meaningless unless you go out there and actually do it. I feel like I’ve played enough rounds around here to know how to play this golf course well and well enough to win.
“But I never come in here thinking I’ve served my time and this is my turn because it’s never your turn. It’s not going to fall into your lap, you have to go out and win the Masters and you have to go and earn it. And I’m here this week to earn it all.”
In effect, McIlroy was pressing the re-set button on his career when he shut things down early last season. After ten years as a professional, it was time to take a proper break before going hard at it again for the next decade. You get the feeling that he’s also starting afresh in this event and is ready to show the world that he has indeed used that last-day meltdown in 2011, when he led by four shots only to capitulate with an 80, to learn what it takes to get the job done here.
“I’m an avid fan of the history of the game, and I know a win here would put me in history alongside some of the greatest that have ever played this game, and that would mean an awful lot to me,” he admitted. “But I have to try and clear my head of that come Thursday morning and go out and play good golf, hit good golf shots, have good course management, hole putts. I feel as good as I have with the putter for quite a while. So, if you can be comfortable on these greens, you can be comfortable on any greens.”
He intends to be a bit more aggressive than in recent years on this course. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve given this golf course a little too much respect,” he mused. “Last year I shot 72 in that real windy first day, and Charley Hoffman had shot 65. I thought I played pretty well but, all of a sudden, you’re seven back with three rounds to go. I have gotten in my way here before, but I think because I’m a little more comfortable on the golf course and comfortable in my game, I don’t think that will happen this week.”
Privately, McIlroy is probably delighted that most of the focus heading into the event has been on Woods, as illustrated by his press conference attracting the bigger audience of the two. That can only help deflect attention when the gun goes off. “But I don’t feel like I’m going into this under any sort of radar,” he insisted. “I’ve come here with one goal, and that is to win the tournament. I just need to go out and play good golf and I do believe I’m more comfortable. My game is in good shape and I’m confident in it.”