Forget the big three of golf that puts world number one Jason Day, defending champion Jordan Spieth and four-time major winner McIlroy at the pinnacle of their sport. This opening major of 2016 has a deeper field of candidates than that.
Bubba Watson has twice conquered Augusta National in the last four years, Rickie Fowler is knocking on the door for his first major and Justin Rose has the look of a Masters champion in waiting. Throw previous champions Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel and Phil Mickelson into the pot alongside current form horses Henrik Stenson, Louis Oosthuizen, and Dustin Johnson, and you have the makings of a battle royal to light the touchpaper on a golfing year to relish. Even dual US Amateur and NCAA champion Bryson DeChambeau is part of the conversation as a potential winner.
“I think that’s the game of golf in general right now,” Graeme McDowell said this week as golf’s chattering classes gathered under the giant oak in front of the Augusta National clubhouse. “It’s wide open. An amateur winning this week wouldn’t surprise you. This is kind of, for me, the theme of the game right now. If Bryson Dechambeau was on the leaderboard at the weekend it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. It’s the way the game of golf is now. You’ve got young, strong, fearless professional golfers running around and it doesn’t matter if you’re 20 or 40, it’s an amazing game and I think we’re going to see that trend going forward.”
For all their credentials, though, it is Ireland’s McIlroy that captures the imagination with his sense of unfulfilled promise when it comes to the Masters, and never more so now it represents the last leg of a career grand slam of majors.
Augusta National, he acknowledges, is the major championship course most suited to his game but McIlroy has never managed to get his negotiation of this week amongst the pines absolutely spot on. His first six attempts all featured an over-par round, most notably the final-round 80 in 2011 when he blew his best chance of donning the Green Jacket in spectacular fashion having led by four shots after 54 holes.
Last year was a little different. McIlroy never threatened Spieth’s remarkable charge to victory, conceding 12 shots to the 21-year-old Texan over the first two rounds and eventually finishing six strokes in arrears. Yet the Holywood golfer achieved his best finish yet with four rounds under par as he claimed fourth place. He will be hoping the only way from here is up.
McIlroy has honed his preparations this time around. There have been no rounds at Augusta National in advance of tournament week, and once here he has practised with just one ball in play, turning rounds into matches with his practice partners to keep his competitive instincts sharp, even holing an ace at the 16th on Monday.
McIlroy, in short, is ready to go and two-time Masters champion Tom Watson believes the time and the conditions are right for the Irishman to wear the famous jacket come Sunday.
“He’s the guy. He’s my pick this week,” Watson said. “He’s just got a tremendous talent. He hits the ball high. I think it’s always been an advantage to hit the ball high on this golf course. Rory, he can emasculate a golf course, he flat can.”
Day is another who gets his ball high in the air. The Australian comes in as world number one following his wins at Bay Hill and at the WGC Dell Match Play last month, where he defeated McIlroy in the semi-final thanks to his superior short game on the day.
McIlroy, though, feels he is peaking at the right time. Spieth was the dominant figure last season, Day the main man so far this year, but if he can recapture the form that landed him The Open, WGC-Bridgestone and PGA Championships in successive starts during that heady summer of 2014, then no-one will live with his talents.
“I want to dominate. I want to go back to the summer of 2014 and play like that for the rest of my career,” McIlroy said on Tuesday. “Whether that’s possible or not remains to be seen, but I know that’s a level that I can play at, and I’d love to be able to play at that level more consistently, and that’s why I’m practising and working hard and trying to do that. When you have momentum and confidence, you can go with it. And I felt like my game was bubbling up to that point all of 2014. I had a chance to win in February. I got beaten in a play-off. I won in May. I was playing well. My game was bubbling. I was doing the exact same thing I’ve been doing this year, just making too many mistakes.
“It was always getting there and then once it all clicked, I was off and running. So I’m just waiting for that moment again. There would be no better time than this week.”
Darren Clarke certainly believes his friend is ready for take off.
“He’s happy, happy where his game’s at, happy with the way he’s swinging it,” Clarke said. “He’s been playing well without winning, but I expect him to win soon. I’ve been keeping a close eye on his stats and they’re right up there. Rory’s the type of player and character when he gets that little bit of extra spark that triggers his confidence it’ll be off we go. If and when he clicks he wins.”