The two-horse race between McIlroy and Woods that this first Major of the year has been framed as, will not concern the 22-year-old from Holywood one jot. The big battle for the world No 2 is to prove he has the game and the brain to build on the immaculate first three rounds he put together in 2011 and add a crowning last-day final round to land the Green Jacket his talent merits.
In winning the US Open for his first Major title eight weeks after his meltdown, McIlroy proved last year in the wake of the final-day, eight-over-par 80 he was prepared to quickly learn lessons and put right the wrongs of the horrible back nine he experienced here.
Now he has to cross another hurdle and show the golfing world Augusta National did not break him that day and the preceding three rounds were the rule rather than the anomaly.
McIlroy has talked about the improvements he made to his putting, having sought the help of short-game guru Dave Stockton, and also of developing a better attitude.
“I’m in a great place,” McIlroy said. “I feel like my golf game is in great shape. I’m coming back here a much more experienced player and feel like a much better player than the player that came here last year.”
Still, all eyes will be on McIlroy as he goes about the task, particularly at the 10th hole, where his title bid so dramatically unravelled with a triple bogey. The pairings have not been kind to him, drawn alongside Angel Cabrera, whom he played with in the final group 12 months ago and whose playing pace is not a good match for McIlroy’s up-tempo approach.
Still, it will be a minor irritation if he stays true to his word and concentrates on his own game. Doing anything else may prove fatal, particularly if Woods enters into his thinking.
The 14-time Major champion and four-time Masters winner is truly back in business for the first time since his private life came apart very publicly in late 2009.
Now with one of his beloved ‘W’s to add from Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill event to the victory he scored in his own Chevron Challenge tournament last December, Woods has some silverware to confirm he has completed his swing modifications. On Tuesday, during his Masters press conference, he cut a relaxed figure not truly seen for years.
“I think I have more shots than I did in 2000,” Woods said referring to a nine-win, three-Major season for the ages.
So, are Tiger and Rory the only two who can with this thing? Worlds numbers one and three Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson and defending champion Charl Schwartzel might have something to say about that. Let alone the Australian trio of Adam Scott, Jason Day and Geoff Ogilvy, who came so close to landing a first Green Jacket for their country last year.
That was on a madcap final day that should remind us all that nothing should be taken for granted.
McIlroy’s fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell will be looking to muscle his way into the reckoning, having missed the cut last year when he says he hit the ball very well only to putt “like an idiot”.
Pádraig Harrington embarks on his 13th Masters looking to arrest a run of two missed cuts — and won his third par three title yesterday (shared with Jonathan Byrd) when he led the event on five under when play was ended with lightning in the area.
That was an event both McDowell and Darren Clarke skipped, the latter of the pair having decided to give his groin problem further rest. It means the British Open champion, who was last of the 96 competitors to arrive on site on Tuesday, will go into the Masters with just two nine-hole practice rounds under his belt ahead of his first appearance since 2007.
Clarke’s cause and that of many others may have been aided by the bad weather that brought more than an inch of rain down on the course on Tuesday night, softening the usually lightning-fast greens and, according to Mickelson, turning the Masters into a potential birdie-fest if Augusta National doesn’t firm up.
“As soft as the golf course is, you can fire at a lot of pins. The greens are soft,” Mickelson said, before the deluge. “I don’t want to say they are slow, but it’s just not the same Augusta. It’s wet around the greens, and there’s no fear of the course. You’ve got to attack it this week.”
Which just goes to prove, even the outcome of a two-horse race depends on the going.