One year wiser, why Rory is ready to master Augusta

We’ll hear it all week, hopefully in the ceremony in the log cabin afterwards too: he learned.

What we might not hear is exactly what Rory McIlroy learned from last year’s Masters meltdown. Because it wasn’t just one thing.

Following his US Open breakthrough, he would bit by bit detail just how blowing up in Augusta was the foundation for blowing up Congressional. But he never really put it altogether for us, at least off the course.

Here’s seven ways how Rory McIlroy is a wiser, better player returning to Augusta.

1. His putting

It took that collapse with the whole world watching for him to face up to the most glaring inadequacy in his game. Even in the car park afterwards, his caddie PJ Fitzpatrick urged him to seek out the short-game guru Dave Stockton.

“Up to then, I was nearly a bit in denial abut it,” admitted McIlroy.

It didn’t take Stockton long to identify that McIlroy’s faulty putting was more mental than technical. He was thinking too much about mechanics instead of going by feel. Instead of taking three practice strokes he wasn’t to take any. “He just needed to line up the ball,” Stockton would reveal, “look at the hole and the positioning of his feet and follow through on the putt and keep the back of his left hand going towards the target.”

Last year, McIlroy was ranked the 98th best putter on the PGA tour from three to five feet. This year he’s jumped nearly 50 places.

2. Mastering doublethink

Steve Davis once said that the trick to winning the big events was to “play as if it means nothing when it means everything”. Twelve months ago, McIlroy didn’t know how to play with that freedom. Then he went to Haiti on charity work. “There was a nine-hole golf course in Port Au Prince and there were 50,000 people living on it,” he’d recall. “One night when we were there 25 people were killed in floods.”

Towards the end of his third round in Congressional, McIlroy momentarily felt the weight of the world closing on top of him. Then he checked himself. What was so bad about this? What about those poor people in Haiti? Now he identifies himself as someone who “hits a little white ball around a field sometimes”. No world, at least not his, will end in Augusta next weekend.

3. There’s a time to tweet…

Last year he allowed external distractions get the better off him. He spent that Sunday morning watching Ulster’s Heineken Cup quarter-final — and hearing their supporters sing “We’re going to win the Masters!” — and then all the sports channels all talking about one man — him.

He was wasting too much time and energy tweeting and thinking of what to tweet. Now, come the week of a major, he knows he doesn’t need to tweet or hear what the paper or TV guys have to say about him.

4. Stay loose

As much as you need to be in a certain zone at a major, you’ve got to be suitably relaxed too. His friends noticed how in the car to the course that Sunday there wasn’t the kind of light banter there was earlier in the week.

“I was almost trying to be this person that I wasn’t,” he’d later admit. “Sort of ultra-focused, tunnel vision.”

Phil Mickelson can identify with that. It was only at his breakthrough 2004 US Masters that a friend remarked that he needed to lighten up on Sundays. “When you’re at the top of your game, you’re smiling and laughing. If you try to be serious it’s like tying one hand behind your back.”

Half an hour before he teed off for that fourth round, Mickelson was talking about solar eclipses. “At that point,” his coach Phil Smith would remark, “I figured he was relaxed enough.”

5. Positive body language

McIlroy’s tightness last year was reflected in and compounded by his body language. “Even walking to the first tee, (I was) looking at my shoes instead of having my head up and chest out; I was very insular.”

This year he’ll maintain his bouncy, cocky strut. “I always made sure at the US Open, especially in the final round, that my eye level was always above the crowd. (It) affects the way you feel in yourself.”

6. Surround yourself with family

His father Gerry wasn’t at Augusta. After it he wowed for every future major he’d be there for him.

7. The process mindset

Remember what happened just before he hooked that tee shot on 10? Tiger had eagled to bring him within one and not only could Rory hear the roar but he could feel Woods closing in on him. All day he had been playing not to lose rather than to win.

At Congressional he set himself little performance targets, to attack his own lead. “It kept me from focusing on the leaderboard,” he’d say after Congressional.

“That really kept me in the present. You can’t let your mind wander and start thinking about what anyone else is doing.” With that mindset, it’s hard for the rest of us not seeing him near the top of that leaderboard.

And this time, all the way round.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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