It’s hard not to talk about Rory McIlroy these days, even when he is not competing.
With Tiger Woods roaring back into form, the stage is set for an intriguing head to head in Augusta next week between the pair.
McIlroy’s recent form is staggering but he is well aware that his true greatness in the game will be defined by the number of major championships he secures. With just one such trophy in the locker, he still has much to do just to surpass Pádraig Harrington’s three and a career of hard graft to come anywhere near emulating Woods (14) and Jack Nicklaus’s record tally of 18.
But Rory McIlroy is capable of achieving such greatness.
Over the past year, he has demonstrated that inner calm, ruthless focus and most especially a level maturity, required in abundance, to seriously challenge such legends.
He has proven a fast learner but now he must also have the self belief to realise his true golfing destiny lies in realising his own ability. He is well capable of winning any of the four major championships whatever the course.
The Augusta layout will suit Rory’s eye and game as the course heavily favours the player who hits the ball long, high and from right to left and the man with deft short game touches on and around the greens. At times, Augusta may look beautiful and benign, but behind those looks (as Rory found out last year) is a steely monster capable of wrecking scorecards and breaking hearts.
Given all the positives then, are Rory’s chances of success seriously compromised by his strangely curious decision to take a break for the three weeks leading up to this year’s first major? This was a very brave decision by the form golfer in the world, which either demonstrates his growing maturity or his naivety.
Brave indeed, especially as his greatest rival, Woods, has used that time to emphatically announce his return as a global force.
McIlroy can argue that this is the same schedule he pursued last year leading up to the Masters. But back then, he was nothing more than a golfing prodigy, a player who had the potential to achieve great things in the game.
Today, he is a major champion, he is the world’s most exciting golfer. The media want a piece of him all the time and the public expect him to deliver. As much as he may want the same build-up in 2012, his achievements over the past year mean that this simply cannot be.
Of even greater significance is the level of expectation Rory will actually place on himself. He knows this is a great opportunity to add to his Major tally but the question he will be wondering most about is whether or not he can bring this cutting edge sharpness to Augusta after such a layoff? I’m not so sure. I would have preferred him to have kept competitively sharp as all the practice in the world can’t replicate the experience of performing under pressure.
His self-imposed absence will have given his other rivals hope, most especially Woods, who has timed his run to perfection (Tiger’s biggest threat during Masters week may not in fact be his game but instead fending off questions and quotes from his former coach Hank Haney’s book).
Tiger’s record at Augusta marks him out as Rory’s main threat and I can fully understand why the bookies have made the American favourite.
But, on form, Rory is more than capable of beating Tiger, even on his best day. One just hopes that Rory’s game will be sharp enough to keep him in contention come the closing stretch on Sunday.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved