The Masters is here at last and for Rory McIlroy, eight months of talk concerning a career grand slam can finally give way to the pursuit of a remarkable feat.
Having knocked off both The Open and PGA Championships in consecutive outings last summer, the world number one has had plenty of time to think about joining that elite quintet of Sarazen, Hogan, Player, Nicklaus and Woods, as a winner of all four professional majors.
The consensus has long been, given his game and ball flight, that winning a Masters is simply a matter of time for McIlroy. Yet after six attempts to date, last season’s finish of a tie for eighth is his best placing around Augusta, while his total of 286 on his debut in 2009 remains his lowest score and that would not have been good to win in any year since 2007, when Zach Johnson slipped on a Green Jacket after carding 289.
In each year since that debut, McIlroy’s card has been disfigured by a round of 77 or worse, his 80 in 2011 the most damaging of all, having led the tournament for 63 holes before that final round infamously took a dramatic turn for the worst.
McIlroy, though, believes he has paid his dues around Augusta National and learned his lessons, taking pars rather than chasing birdies and acknowledging where he should be turning pars into birdies or better. Nowhere have his Augusta shortcomings been more exposed than on the course’s four par-fives, the 2nd, 8th, 13th and 15th, at which the Holywood ranks, respectively 43rd, 61st, 40th and 43rd amongst the current field.
In short, the Holywood golfer still needs to give himself an opportunity to win and conquering the par-fives appear the simplest route to that objective. Twelve months ago, that quartet of holes were statistically the easiest to negotiate at Augusta National yet McIlroy played them to even par while champion Bubba Watson played them eight under par. The number of strokes separating McIlroy and the winner? Eight.
“I just feel, you know, sometimes on par 5s with my length, I can be a little over-aggressive. I’m standing there, especially thinking back even to the last day last year, I had a 9-iron in my hand on 13, and I think I had a 9-iron in my hand on 15, and I walked away with two sixes. You turn those into two fours and all of a sudden I finish third in the tournament.
“So just things like that where instead of being maybe ultra-aggressive, and you think you’re in a position to make three, give yourself a decent chance at three but make sure that you get your four.
“That’s been something I’ve been thinking about, getting the eagle a little bit too much, and trying to get two shots up on the field instead of settling for one and still realising that’s still a good result. If you look at the previous winners here, they’ve all played the par 5s well. Bubba last year played them at eight under par; I played them at even par and he beat me by eight shots. If I can just play the par 5s a little better, hopefully that will help me do better and obviously have a chance to win.”
McIlroy is not the only participant chasing entry into a select group of golfers. Defending champion Watson has the opportunity to join Nicklaus, Woods and Nick Faldo as the fourth man in Masters history to win back-to-back titles here and is clearly more comfortable coming into Augusta as the title holder than he was in 2013 when his defence went awry with an opening 75 and closing 77.
His second Masters win in three years showed “Bubba Golf” with all its creativity and athleticism is a perfect fit for Augusta and the familiarity of another successful year can only enhance his hopes for a third victory in four.
Added experience will also benefit current world number four Jordan Spieth, runner-up with Jonas Blixt on his debut a year ago and coming in this time with strong form.
This may have been framed as a McIlroy procession to Masters glory and Tiger Woods, the last man to achieve the career slam in 2000, may have ordained the 25-year-old as a player with multiple green jackets in his future, but there are plenty of golfers in this deeper than ever field more than capable of grabbing one for themselves.
Spieth heads a cast of talented Americans hungry for a breakthrough majors success while McIlroy is not the only European craving for a first success since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999. Throw in the credible challenges of 2013 champion Adam Scott and his fellow Australian Jason Day and there is enough talent ready to capitalise on any mis-step the Irishman might make.
McIlroy has first-hand experience of that, of course, following his 2011 meltdown on the back nine but as we have seen over the last 11 months or so, is much improved from that dark day in his career, both as a golfer and competitor. Starting today, those improvements will be subjected to their stiffest test yet but he is happy with his game, preparations made in private in Florida the past two weeks have gone well and he feels ready to rise to the challenge.
“I think I’ve developed a game where I can compete at pretty much any golf course now,” McIlroy said. “That might not have been the case two or three years ago. But if you’re looking at the courses, I mean, it’s the one that should set up the best for me just with my ball flight and being comfortable off the tee here, especially, being able to turn the ball over from right to left and all that.
“If I can play the way I know I can around here, and just have a good week on the greens, then there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have a good chance.”
Jack Nicklaus rolled back the years in the Masters Par 3 contest yesterday by firing a hole in one.
Nicklaus aced the fourth hole, the Augusta crowd going wild when the ball rolled back into the cup.