Rory McIlroy tees up for date with Masters destiny

IT’S hard to believe that it was less than eight years ago when Rory McIlroy, in the days when his curly mop was a lot longer than it is now, stood on the 18th green at Carnoustie as he waited to receive the Silver Medal as leading amateur in the Open Championship. “The dreams were there,” he admitted in recalling that occasion, “but it hadn’t entered my mind what was going to happen.”

Four-times champion Tiger Woods, left, and Ben Crenshaw, twice a winner of the Green Jacket. Picture: Getty

Those dreams definitely included one major and perhaps two or three. Talented as though he was back then, it might have been pushing things if four had been on his mind. Yet, that target has already been achieved.

The US Open (2011), the US PGA (2012 and 2014) and the Open Championship (2014) have all fallen to the man from Holywood in Northern Ireland. All that he needs now to complete a script for Hollywood in Los Angeles is a Masters title. Achieve that and the 25-year-old will join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods as the only players to have completed golf’s Grand Slam in their careers.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“Once I won my first major in 2011, I started to believe that I could go on to achieve bigger and better things than just being a Tour pro and making a living at the game,” admitted McIlroy as he prepared for his date with destiny. “I felt like I could set my goals a little higher and that’s what I’ve done and worked hard to achieve them. All of a sudden, I’m here and have a great opportunity to do what not many people in golf have done.”

On recent major form, McIlroy looks a good bet to have the Green Jacket slipped over his shoulders on Sunday night. After all, he’s won the last two and impressively, too. On Masters form, however, confidence about history being made over the next four days is not nearly at the same lofty level.

In seven previous appearances here, McIlroy’s best finish is joint-eighth, the position he achieved 12 months ago after just scraping into the weekend. There’s also the issue of some scars, having been left when he squandered a four-shot lead in the final round four years ago. Add in the fact that you have to go back 16 years – Jose Maria Olazabal having been the man to achieve the feat – for a last European winner here and it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion that McIlroy will become one of the game’s greats on Sunday night.

The McIlroy that let victory slip from his grasp here in 2011, however, was young and inexperienced. He’s still young, of course, but has matured nicely in the intervening years. Helped by the round he played last year on the Saturday with local amateur Jeff Knox, he knows what is required to have a chance on this beautiful beast.

“Mentally, I feel like I’m in a far better place on the golf course to be able to handle adversity whenever it might come my way out there,” he said. “You’ve got to realise that there are holes out here that par is a good score and you move on.”

He’s had too many of them at some of the par 5s and knows that needs to change if he wants to be in the mix come the back nine in the final round. “I think I made six 6s last year – four on par 5s and two on par 4s,” he recalled. “With my length, I feel I can be a little over-aggressive. Last year, for instance, I had a 9-iron in my hand (for his second shot) at the 13th and a 9-iron in my hand at the 15th and I walked away with two 6s. If you look at the previous winners here, they’ve all played the par-5s well. Bubba [Watson] was eight-under for them last year; I played them in even par and he beat me by eight shots.” Having come out on top twice in the last three years, Watson is once again an obvious threat to the storyline we’d all like to see. Only three players – Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods – have managed to pull off back-to-back wins in this event and Watson himself failed miserably in his first attempt. He’s much more relaxed this time, though, and there’s probably not a course in the world that suits his high fades more than here.

Having got his nose in front at one point in the final round only to be overtaken by his compatriot, Jordan Spieth will be a young man on a mission this week. He’s the form horse, too, having won the Valspar Championship three weeks ago then losing in a play-off for the Houston Open last Sunday.

With a win under his belt since returning from a leave of absence from the game, Dustin Johnson is another potential danger to McIlroy, while it would be foolish to rule out Phil Mickelson, a three-time winner here, even though his form has been very patchy so far this season.

Can the same be said for Tiger Woods? With four Green Jackets in his closet the answer should be “yes”. The last of those successes was a decade ago, however, and he has not won a major since 2009. As part of its preview package, the Augusta Chronicle went round the world’s golfing press in the media centre asking two questions about Tiger – 1) can he make the cut this week? and 2) will he win another major? For the record, this correspondent said “yes” to the first one but “no” to the second.

Going forward, these events are going to be dominated by the McIlroys, Spieths, Johnsons and Patrick Reeds. Tiger has had his time in the sun. Yes, it’s great that he’s making his return here after a two-month lay-off. And, believe me, his presence has hiked up the atmosphere around this magical place several notches. It will take the mother of all monumental efforts, though, for him to make his presence felt. It’s not just the fact he’ll have competitive rust to shake off. He’s got some hungry youngsters to contend with and no-one has a bigger appetite for these events than McIlroy.

This, of course, is the second Masters to be staged without the iconic Eisenhower Tree on the 17th hole after it was lost following an ice storm prior to last year’s event. Having managed to preserve its genetics, chairman Billy Payne and his committee are not discounting it being replaced one day, though Woods, for one, believes that would be wrong.

“I loved it the way it was,” said the 14-times major winner. “I’ve hit that tree too many times, trust me. But it was a fantastic hole. That tree was iconic and I don’t think you can ever, ever replace it.”