Masters greatness is there for Rory to grasp

It was almost a year ago that Adam Scott, fresh from his dramatic Masters victory, responded to a congratulatory text message from his friend Justin Rose.

“This is your time, this is our time, to win these tournaments,” Scott’s text to the Englishman read. Rose, like Scott, 33 at the time, took the words to heart and promptly won the next Major available, at the US Open at Merion.

Rory McIlroy may be a little younger than those particular rivals, both of whom are live contenders at Augusta National this weekend, but the Irishman will be thinking that Scott’s statement could equally apply to him where the Masters is concerned.

After five appearances here of varying fortune, the world number nine has certainly done his time, and in 2011 in particular, paid his dues the unique challenge that lies in the rolling hills on which this magnificent golf course sits.

That experience of three years ago was, by his own admission, a career-defining moment for McIlroy as he suffered a golfing meltdown in front of a watching world. He used it in spectacular fashion to win that year’s US Open at Congressional by a country mile, and repeated the feat in 2012 when he tamed Kiawah Island to land the US PGA Championship, en route to finishing the year atop both the European and US PGA Tour money lists.

Last year represented another roadblock and took a lot longer to negotiate but a winless year and the loss of his status as world number one appears to have focused his mind.

In short, and just like Scott and Rose before him, McIlroy’s time for Masters greatness is now.

The Holywood golfer is still without a tournament win since 2012 but he has turned the corner following the desperate year that followed, and his closing 65 last Sunday at the Shell Houston Open could not have come at a more encouraging time to rubber-stamp a 2014 season where a tie for 25th at Doral in the WGC-Cadillac Championship represents the worst of his efforts from seven starts.

Of course you can pick up on the statistics and Masters trends, and find, perhaps, 20 players who fit the bill this week, including the aforementioned defending champion and reigning US Open titleholder, as well as others who don’t fall into all the neat criteria, such as Jason Day and debutant Jordan Spieth.

The first Major of the year is also time when everyone is full of optimism and anticipation following an eight-month hiatus since the last putt was sunk at the PGA. All of that is understood.

What separates McIlroy, though, is the sense that at age 24 and on his sixth trip to Augusta National, he has learned the lessons and is ready to kick on with his career and really lay down the foundations of a long and successful career.

It is as if the two Major wins already achieved as McIlroy made his introductions were mere appetisers, markers of greatness to come. Now comes the main course and those around the Co. Down man believe he is preparing to launch a sustained run of excellence.

“He’s one win away from winning a whole bunch,” McIlroy’s short game coach Dave Stockton said. “When he’s on, he obviously can get them and he’s in a good place. He looks really good. He’s ready to go.

“He’s won his two Majors by a piece — it’s just a matter of things going his way. He learned a lot from his debacle in 2011 — he came right back — and he certainly has the game for this golf course.

“The longer hitters have to be loving the rain that fell on Monday and he certainly qualifies as one of those.

“You either have to have the long game or the short game here and with the rain it has tilted to those with the long game a little bit. It’s going to be a longer course for the average hitter.”

The fact that current world number one Tiger Woods is missing a Masters for the first time since making his debut in 1995, when McIlroy was not yet six, does the field no harm either, of course.

With Woods convalescing after back surgery, his great foe Phil Mickelson playing hurt and old familiars such as Ireland’s Pádraig Harrington and South Africa’s Retief Goosen not qualifying, it is not just McIlroy’s time but a whole generation of younger players, including Day.

The Australian, also 24, is shaping into one of McIlroy’s potentially fiercest adversaries and his record around Augusta National of two top-three finishes in three appearances speaks volumes of both his talent and comfort on the biggest of stages.

Could they be the new Tiger and Phil? Day is not sure about that but he agreed it was time for the young guys to step up.

“Rivalries start in the media with you guys trying to paint that picture but I am just out there trying to do one job and that is trying to win, and whether that starts a new rivalry with guys like Rory to replace guys like Tiger and Phil. then we’ll see,” Day said.

“I know that Rory is playing some good golf and that final round 65 in Houston shows that he has some good form coming into this week. But then it does seem like a new generation is trying hard to take that bigger step forward as a lot of the young guys are starting to play well now, and not that the older guys are fading out as they are still there, but there seems more younger guys popping their heads up.

“Unfortunately it’s a bummer for those guys (not here) but there is a newer generation coming up through the ranks and what, there is 24 players here this week who have never played here before and that’s near on a quarter of the field.

“It’s just this process of the new now beginning to replace the old and it happens in most sports.”

The next step for them is to seize the day, and McIlroy is chief among them.

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