The 27-year-old will today embark on his third attempt to complete a career grand slam of major victories in his ninth Masters appearance, having acknowledged this is the tournament that applies the most pressure to his competitive psyche.
The Masters remains McIlroy’s holy grail and he will tee off his opening round at 6.41pm Irish time believing he has approached it in the best way possible, dismissing the gremlins that have put him on tenterhooks in previous lead-ins to the first major of the year.
“I feel more relaxed going in, not as wound up,” the Irishman said. “My patience could get very short the weeks before the Masters sometimes and I could say a few things I didn’t mean, just because I was in a mood with the Masters coming up, a little bit of stress there. This year, I’ve been good, happy, relaxed, not stressed about it too much. I am in a good frame of mind.”
McIlroy has been striving to diminish the mystique surrounding this most revered of tournaments, attempting to treat it as just another week on tour, or even, as he made an early visit to the Georgia course last week and practised alongside Phil Mickelson and Justin Thomas, like Holywood, his hometown club.
“The more you can make Augusta National feel like your home golf course, the better; just to be comfortable in your surroundings, playing it as if it is your home course and that’s the way I am trying to approach it this week.
“I wanted to come up here and have fun, it wasn’t two days of mapping pin positions and greens and trying to figure out where to leave it if I hit it somewhere, it was one ball, shoot a score.... playing some games, really enjoyed it, definitely most enjoyable build-up because it was about trying to shoot a score, trying to win a bit of money off the boys. That’s been the way I prepared, a nice change from the norm and the more holes you can get around here, the better.”
Some holes need more of McIlroy’s attention than others and it has not escaped the world number two’s attention had he played the par-three fourth and par-four 11th better last year, he would have arrived for the 2017 Masters as defending champion, his life’s work complete with a set of majors in the bag at the age of 26.
Last year he played those two holes in a combined nine over par, in a week that saw him finish six shots behind champion Danny Willett.
“If I can make a three on four and a four on 11 every day this week, I think I’ll be okay,” he said earlier this week as he cast his mind back to a third-round 77.
“I cast my mind back to the 11th hole on Saturday last year where I’m in the pine straw on the left and I’m trying to hit this low hook around and catch the hill and trying to get it up onto the green and hit this heroic shot, and it goes in the water and I make a six. That’s the last thing I needed. I was three or four over for the day at that point and I needed to hit it to the right of the green and try and make my up and down. Even if you make five, five is better than six; take the water out of play.”
More slip-ups like those and McIlroy knows there are plenty of his rivals only too willing to take advantage, not least Dustin Johnson. The world number one is in imperious form and fully deserving of his status as tournament favourite having won his last three starts, two of which have been World Golf Championship titles.
Bad weather forced the traditional pre-Masters par-three contest to be cancelled for the first time ever last night. Although a break in the weather allowed the contest to start at 12:30pm local time, another band of storms soon approached Augusta National and saw play abandoned for the day 55 minutes later. Former champion Mike Weir and Brendan Steele were tied for the lead at the time on three under par.
If the weather pans out as forecast, a soft Augusta National course should play right into the 32-year-old US Open champion’s hands, given his prodigious distance off the tee and his vastly improved wedge game.
Yesterday saw a tornado warning issued for the second time this week, forcing practice play to be suspended and the Par-Three Contest cut short as spectators were asked to leave the course at 1:25pm local time and the gates of Augusta National were shut behind them for the rest of the day. For today’s opening round early morning showers were expected before Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were due to fulfil their roles as honorary starters, followed by winds of 20 to 30 miles per hour gusting up to 40 mph. Tomorrow’s second round will be chilly with winds of 15 to 20mph gusting up to 30mph.
They are the sort of conditions to favour the more experienced elite in this invitational field and on this most testing of challenges when those lacking form and confidence or the requisite mental fortitude can see their prospects of glory disappear with one false move.
McIlroy has had his share of those, as anyone who has followed his remarkable career to date will testify.
For every moment of brilliance around Augusta National there has been a bad round or a nightmare hole to reduce his green jacket dreams to shreds.
The time may be right, the preparation finally honed and the mystique diminished sufficiently to finally put it all together and deliver the Masters victory that will place the Irishman among the legends of the game.