When Rory McIlroy took the unpopular decision late last year to participate exclusively on the PGA Tour this season, he endured plenty of criticism from this side of the Atlantic.
With two career goals to be realised – a Grand Slam of major championships as well as another Open Championship on home soil, his decision was always going to be self-serving no matter how unpopular.
But with six top-six finishes in as many starts, including a win at the Players Championship, Rory, you feel, has more than vindicated his decision and is the form player going into this week’s Masters at Augusta.
In strokes gained driving alone, Rory is nearly three times better than anyone else on Tour and he will hope to use that dominance to great effect around an Augusta National course that always offers opportunity despite its phenomenal changes in elevation, its insanely fast and sharply contoured greens or the swirling breeze which funnels up through the course, making exact judgement a near impossibility.
From the competitor’s viewpoint, it is a venue where aggression is rewarded but only if it is tempered with patience and especially a good mindset. Nowhere is this more apparent than the pressure-filled cauldron of the back nine holes on Sunday afternoon, where almost anything can happen. Having already failed in this scenario, few know the pitfalls better than McIlroy himself.
In order to have any chance of winning at Augusta National this week, Rory will need to be in the region of 100-110 putts or an average of 25-27 putts per round. He will also need his fair share of “momentum putts”, that will be vital in keeping him competitive.
So far this year, I have been hugely impressed with his performances. From a stats standpoint, they suggest that all components of his game are close to being at their very best but that alone only tells part of the story. Behind every great golfer is an awful lot of hard work and already this year we have seen Rory play with a slight swing modification, a statistically better putting technique, more contribution from his caddie Harry Diamond as well as a more relaxed attitude.
When working seamlessly in tandem, it is my belief that these changes have made Rory a far more potent player — one which his fellow competitors are now beginning to recognise.
In turn, these changes may just be the all-important differences Rory needs in order to cope with the pressure he will undoubtedly face in his quest for his first green jacket and Grand Slam glory.
In Rory’s way will stand a group of hardened professionals who also have a lot of soul searching to do in order to get themselves into the winner’s enclosure.
Jordan Spieth, for example, knows how to win around Augusta National but his erratic form and inconsistent putting means that he has quite a hurdle to overcome while Dustin Johnson, it seems, can never produce his best form in the year’s first major.
Tiger Woods gets a mention this week out of respect but he would have to fundamentally change his career-long conservative gameplan if he is to be competitive. In today’s game, Tiger starts too slowly and where once his competitiveness or intimidation factor, might have found a way to claw back the field, nowadays players are aggressively backing themselves from the off every week knowing that it is their only chance of success.
Phil Mickelson, already a winner this year, has both the form and aggression to win around Augusta National. It is a course that suits his shot-making skills but can he limit his bad play to merely a bogey on a hole?
Justin Rose and Paul Casey have shown brilliant form over Augusta National for many years and one feels that this may be Casey’s best opportunity for his first major championship. On form, he is a brilliant ball striker but under pressure his putting can be suspect and the fact that he has not won a major championship suggests that mentally he still has some demons to conquer if he is to realise his ambition.
The same cannot be said for the proven Justin Rose. Rose has both the experience as well as determination to win his first green jacket this year. He will have been stung by the near misses over the past decade and last year’s form has demonstrated that he is more than capable of elevating his game, when close to the winning line.
The Australian pair of Adam Scott and Jason Day are my dark horses this week. Both have fallen slightly off the world stage but they possess great form around Augusta. Both are major champions and they will see this week as an opportunity to be considered amongst the very best once more.
All things considered, perhaps, the greatest trait that Augusta National possesses is that the pin positions and winning formula are there for all to see. Everyone knows that to win, you have to plunder the par fives and you have to compete ferociously on the wonderful blend of tougher holes like the very first “Tea Olive”, the fourth “Flowering Crabapple”, the seventh “Pampas” and the eleventh “White Dogwood”, all of which play significantly over par for the tournament.
The true beauty of Augusta National is that it demonstrates time and again that length isn’t everything in the modern golf game. With temptation everywhere, players must stay disciplined or be prepared to count the mental errors caused by their actions.
As usual, it will be compulsive viewing.