Golf | McIlroy’s Masters Mission

Golf | McIlroy’s Masters Mission
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The 2018 Masters will be the 10th attempt of Rory McIlroy’s career to put on the coveted Green Jacket. Based off his previous history of the course, the only major played at the same venue every single year, he will approach the week with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.

The anticipation will mainly come from his stunning victory at the recent Arnold Palmer Invitational, his first win worldwide since 2016,. It was an important confidence-booster before the season’s first major championship. The Northern Irishman has always been a confidence player, and his outward demeanour has always revealed how he feels about his game.

The strut was back at Bay Hill, as he shot a final round of 64, including five birdies in his last six holes to finish out the tournament. Most impressively, he became the first player to win a PGA Tour tournament leading Strokes Gained Putting, Driving Distance, Proximity to the Hole and Scrambling, since strokes gained stats began in 2004. In other words, a complete performance.

The 28-year-old previously said that he “didn’t need to win” before the Masters. This was true for Adam Scott in 2013, who did not win in the build-up, but the previous four winners of the Masters had all won that year before the tournament. Bay Hill has always been a popular tune-up for Tiger Woods just before the Masters, and he won there before he triumphed at the 2001 and 2002 Masters.

Why the trepidation then? This will be McIlroy’s fourth attempt to complete the Career Grand Slam by winning the Masters, where the pressure has tended to be overwhelming. This was the case in 2015, when he came into the Masters having won the previous two majors, and with a win under his belt that year at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

It would have always been tough for McIlroy to match Jordan Spieth’s breakthrough performance, which tied the Masters low score record of 18-under-par. But McIlroy played tentatively in the opening two rounds, not seeing a course that was evidently there for the taking, as Jordan Spieth fired 14 under on those first two days.

Relieved of the pressure, McIlroy let loose and shot 10 under for the final two days to finish fourth, outscoring Spieth by six shots at the weekend. Since then, McIlroy has tried every preparation method in the book to bring out his best golf for Augusta. When asked how he is before the tournament on the eve of last year’s Masters, he said: “I’m a complete p— in the week leading up to Augusta.

“I am probably not much fun to be around, they (his friends and family) understand and know that. It’s a stressful situation.”

How different it could have been in 2011, when he took the Masters by storm as a 21-year-old, and led by four strokes heading into the final round. Few players in history have taken Augusta apart like McIlroy did over the first three rounds, and despite a nervous start on Sunday, he still led by a shot heading to the 10th tee. Then an infamous snap hook led to a triple-bogey and ended his chances.

Some might say that McIlroy has never exorcised the demons of that day at Augusta. In terms of his career, he made a definitive statement in the very next major, winning by eight shots at the US Open. But his best performance at the Masters is still that fourth-place finish in 2015.

The year 2013 was an off-year for McIlroy’s golf in general, while he played well in 2014 and 2017 without ever getting close enough to the lead to have a realistic chance. In 2016, he was in prime position after two days, and was paired with Jordan Spieth in the final group on Saturday. There, McIlroy stumbled to a 77, four shots worse than Spieth, although as a stumble, it was nothing on what Spieth would come up with on the back 9 on Sunday.

In 2012, he was one shot off the lead after two days, before finishing 77, 76 for T40, which left him consoling Sergio Garcia with a hug on the 12th hole. Garcia’s poor round even led the deflated Spaniard to say that he was not good enough to ever win a major.

“I’m not good enough…I don’t have the thing I need to have,” Garcia said. “In 13 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.”

This seems more ridiculous today, as Sergio heads back to this year’s Masters as the defending champion having won at the 19th time of asking. Garcia’s win last year will have been of great comfort for McIlroy, not only to see a friend finally win a major, but because no matter what your course history, all it takes is one week for everything to come together to take home that Green Jacket.

Garcia put on a ball-striking masterclass at Augusta last year. His most famous shot being the sweetest 8-iron of his life on the par 5 15th hole that crashed off the flagstick, and led to a crucial eagle on Sunday. Despite his Bay Hill success, the distance control of McIlroy’s short irons and wedges remain a slight concern, but he can certainly putt as well or better than Sergio, who has always been a modest putter at best.

McIlroy has been a temperamental putter for his entire career, and has had his own fair share of putting woes. This year alone, he had a five-putt at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am as he missed the cut. At Augusta, McIlroy has never looked particularly convincing on the greens, his meltdown in 2011 featured a nasty four-putt at the 12th hole.

That is why McIlroy’s putting performance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational was the most important thing to take away from the week. McIlroy’s putting was exceptional, statistically the best of his career at +2.507 Strokes Gained Putting, +0.681 better than his next best event. McIlroy made 100% of putts within 7 feet.

He credits his performance to spending a few hours with Brad Faxon. Faxon was an 8-time winner on the PGA Tour despite never being a brilliant ball-striker, and broke the single-season record for least putts per GIR in 2000.

“He freed up my head more than my stroke,” said McIlroy. “I felt like maybe I was complicating things a bit and thinking a little bit too much about it and maybe a little bogged down by technical or mechanical thoughts…The objective is to get the ball in the hole and that’s it. I think I lost sight of that a little bit.”

Maintaining that putting streak will be vital if Rory McIlroy is to complete the Career Grand Slam, not just for himself, but for Irish golf. McIlroy is the sole representative from the island of Ireland at the 2018 Masters, although the likes of Shane Lowry, Seamus Power, Paul Dunne and Padraig Harrington could join with a win at the Shell Houston Open.

It will most likely be only the second time this century where the Masters has included only one Irish participant, as the shine from Ireland’s Golden Era in majors from 2007-2014, and the exemptions that came with it, begins to wear off. It means that outside of McIlroy, much interest will be in the fortunes of Tiger Woods.

Woods has made a remarkable recovery from his fourth back surgery to post 12, T2, T5 in his three events building up to the Masters. The 14-time major winner is fully fit for the first time since 2013, and his game looks in fine shape.

Woods has always been a bit wayward with the driver in his hands, but he has at least rediscovered his power game off-the-tee. His short game is as good as it has ever been, a far cry from the chipping yips he was suffering in 2015. Tiger’s comeback to the Masters will bring massive viewership. The recent Valspar Championship drew the largest TV audience in the US for any non-Masters event since the 2015 PGA Championship.

Tiger and his old foe Phil Mickelson have won seven Masters titles between them, and with Mickelson winning the WGC-Mexico Championship in March, both have the form and unmatched course knowledge to contend on Sunday. Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters winner, has also won in 2018 at Riviera and Austin. While the world’s top 3 ranked players, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm, all head into Augusta with wins under their belt too.

Roll on Amen Corner, the azaleas and the Sunday roars. This could be one of the greatest Masters tournaments in history.

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