History in the making: who and what Rory McIlroy needs to conquer

How many times have we heard a sports star talking about a legend from a different generation they grew up watching on tv, wide-eyed and wondering would they be like them one day?

Rory McIlroy went a step further, when as an eight-year-old prodigy he proclaimed on the BBC he was going to turn pro in the future and win all the major championships. Brave talk from a young man, but his intentions were clear two years later when he also wrote to Tiger Woods after winning the U10 World Championships: “I’m coming to get you”.

The transformation from dreams to reality is something very rare, regardless of the prodigious ability. The jump alone from amateur to professionalism is huge but to become the world’s best takes an awful amount of hard work and discipline.

More significantly it takes a special mind — dedicated towards realising the full potential of that person’s dreams and ambitions.

In Rory McIlroy’s case, those dreams meant redefining boundaries — one of his more immediate goals is to be recognised as the greatest European golfer of all time, something which he will move even closer to this weekend should he win the Masters and become the first European ever to win golf’s grand slam.

McIlroy’s progress to date has been spectacular but it has not been without its setbacks. Over the past year, McIlroy has consciously begun to appreciate and feel comfortable with his status in what he initially perceived to be a very selfish game. This, in turn, has allowed him to prioritise himself in terms of realising goals. As simple as that sounds, it was the most important decision he has made to date in his professional career, facilitating his return to the very top of the game as its most fearsome competitor.

McIlroy’s everyday demeanour has visibly changed as well as the perception of those around him. He’s now a more mature, more prepared and better clutch player than he was before. Where once his peers may have questioned his ability to dig out victories they now respect his ability to find a way to seize the biggest moments and get the job done.

So what are the key obstacles McIlroy will have to overcome in order to win his first ‘Grand Slam”?

THE HYPE

McIlroy’s victory in the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool last July laid the foundation – nothing assumed greater importance than McIlroy’s quest for the Grand Slam. In the entire history of the game, the Grand Slam of Major championships have only ever been won by five individuals — Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods.

It is hard to fathom that just 10 years ago we were lamenting the fact that Fred Daly was the only Irishman to win a major championship. Since then the floodgates have opened for the Irish golfers but where Harrington proved emphatically winning multiple major championships is no barrier – it is McIlroy who has proven himself to be the golfing world’s superstar – in the process removing the games most iconic player Tiger Woods for good.

Victory at Augusta this week will mark the biggest achievement of his career. The stakes cannot get much higher. The expectation is there — but you feel that McIlroy is in a good position. He understands, even enjoys, the expectation and he has dreamt about this moment many times before.

Part of McIlroy’s preparation for the Masters has been to hone his skills away from the glare of the media spotlight. A wise decision no doubt but in doing so he also risks being slightly undercooked for what is the biggest opportunity in his life to date.

THE GOLF COURSE

Augusta is a perfect example of a thinking man’s course — one which demands the player consistently position himself with the best angle from the fairway in order to attack flags probably located around contoured slopes on notoriously difficult greens. Power, creativity and a wonderful short game are the pre-requisites for Augusta but so is an abundance of patience on a course designed to provide the player with a roller-coaster ride of emotions.

As if to prove my point, McIlroy in his 22 competitive rounds at the Masters to date has already recorded an astonishing 11 double bogeys and three triple bogeys. His stats suggest he has also had trouble on the its notorious putting surfaces, by consistently finishing in the bottom half of the field in putting.

The firmer Augusta plays, the more difficult the test – less control, faster greens and breaking putts. To date, the greatest chink in McIlroy’s armour has been his ability to win consistently on firm, fast ground but he is learning fast and the steeliness he demonstrated in his back nine duels last year at Royal Liverpool and at the USPGA will stand to him. But around Augusta he must be demonstrate his tactical astuteness time and time again if he is to realise his goal of winning the grand slam.

Luckily for McIlroy, he possesses all the required attributes in his game to succeed but it remains now to be seen if he embraced the offer of advice from his amateur playing partner and Augusta National Member, Jeff Knox, last year. Such inside knowledge from a local especially around the approach shots as well as the putting on Augusta’s challenging green could prove invaluable and every little detail counts!

Plundering Augusta’s par 5s will be a key to McIlroy’s success this year and although to date he hasn’t been as successful on them as he would have liked – they all remain in range for his powerful game and an early return may just set his game in train for his most prized goal.

In terms of the course set-up, it will be interesting to see what Augusta does in terms of providing a competitive challenge. A tough course will eliminate many in the field but a short course will bring everyone into play

THE PROCESS

As McIlroy heads out this week to win his third major in a row, his focus will be on just two trigger words “process” and “spot”. Sticking to the process in terms of making good decisions and good swings is all important as is picking a spot on the green to roll the ball over every time. Everything else is out of his control and just has to happen naturally

HIS COMPETITORS

Bubba Watson (Best Masters Finish: Two-time champion 2012/2014): No one has ever taken on Augusta National the way Bubba Watson has in recent years. Using his strengths – the height and the prodigious length he hits the ball – Watson has used his imagination to blitz Augusta, reducing even the most feared holes to drives and pitching wedges. The freedom gained from his previous victories makes him a very dangerous candidate this week.

Dustin Johnson (Best MastersFinish: T13th 2013): Back from his self-enforced sabbatical from the game Dustin Johnson announced his intentions to the golfing world when winning the WGC event at Doral last month and in doing so once again proved that he is probably America’s most legitimate challenger to McIlroy’s world crown. On form, Johnson possesses the ability to make the game look ridiculously easy and his newly found maturity coupled with hard work and an improved short game makes him a candidate that McIlroy will be keeping his eye on especially around Augusta.

Phil Mickelson (Best Mastersfinish: Winner 2004, 2006, 2010): Of all the elder statesmen in the field – you can not rule out the chances of Phil Mickelson on a course he loves and feels most confident. Much like Bubba Watson – Augusta complements Mickelson’s creativity and at no other venue can he show-off all his short game skills. The trick now is getting himself into the mix on Sunday afternoon.

HIS OWN AMBITION

Rory McIlroy’s steely edge has transformed him into a great golfer. He always possessed phenomenal talent but it now he seems to have that extra gear in his game. When somebody gets close, he can just move ahead. It’s box office stuff from one of the greatest and most popular golfers of all time.

Amazingly, McIlroy is still learning and his current appetite for the game suggests that it is only a matter of time before he completes the career Grand Slam.

Refreshingly, as Nick Faldo said “he’s also able to do what so many of us couldn’t or didn’t during our playing days: Take the blinkers off and be a whole person” – something which may help him become one of most complete golfers ever.

This week McIlroy has to let things flow, but he will know this. He will relish his Augusta test and in doing so he will honestly go about his business. He will not seek out any favours – nor will he hide. Destiny is now in his own hands and all he has to do now is realise his boyhood dreams.

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