Paul McGinley: On-song Rory McIlroy must learn when to fold ‘em

Rory McIlroy might not be a country music fan but if he’s looking for advice on winning the Masters and completing the career Grand Slam, Sky Sports analyst Paul McGinley has some words of wisdom.

It’s not about putting or iron play but strategy, which was crucial in Jack Nicklaus’ six wins at Augusta National.

“It’s like the song says,” McGinley said, quoting Kenny Rogers in The Gambler. “You have to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.”

There are few more exciting, explosive players in the game than McIlroy.

But even though he comes into the Masters in form following that spectacular Arnold Palmer Invitational victory at Bay Hill less than two weeks ago, his big challenge is to know when to turn on the burners and when to ease back on the gas.

“One of the things that makes Rory very charismatic is he plays so aggressively, and sometimes that counts against him,” McGinley said, referring to McIlroy’s Achilles’ heel — his course management.

“Jack Nicklaus, who I have spent time with a couple of times since I’ve worked with Sky, is very clear that it’s a golf course you have to play quite conservatively in a lot of ways. Jordan Spieth also said the same thing.

“You have got to pick your moments to attack. So I think it is a strategic thing, a course management thing and the ability to respect the course in some ways and attack the hell out of it at other times.

“What Rory has learned over the years is that there are times when you just don’t attack. There are times when you have to play away from pins to the centre of greens.

“There are lots of opportunities to be aggressive but you have to listen to Nicklaus who has won six green jackets there. He was adamant on that.”

McIlroy has had his share of tactical disasters at Augusta National, especially at holes like the 11th, or the tight seventh.

But while he’s got his pal Harry Diamond on the bag for the first time this year having split with JP Fitzgerald, McGinley doesn’t see a new bagman as a major factor.

The Co Down man should be able to draw on the experience of nine previous Masters appearances to know when to attack and when to play conservatively.

“Rory is very much his own man,” McGinley said. “One thing we have learnt from Rory over the years is he’s very good at learning from his experiences, and I think he has had some experiences now at Augusta.

“He knows the golf course well and knows he’s capable of taking it apart. So I think the more he plays it, the more he is going to figure out how he plays it best.

‘It is getting that balance right. That’s what great champions have done over the years. And that’s what the statistics illustrate.

“Obviously the par-fives, with his length, that’s when you have to take the shackles off and go for the golf course.

“It’s like the song says, you have to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.”

McGinley didn’t have to add the line about every hand being a winner and every hand being a loser.

The Masters field might be the smallest in major championship golf but he sees this year’s edition as potentially the most exciting ever.

With Tiger Woods back for the first time since 2015 and showing astonishing form in few events he’s played since coming back from spinal fusion surgery, the list of potential winners is a long one.

A Woods win would rank alongside Nicklaus’s 1986 victory at the age of 46 as one of the most astonishing in the history of the game.

“Everyone loves a comeback,” McGinley said. “Hollywood loves a comeback. We all love the underdog, we all love the guy fighting against the odds.

“We all know how low Tiger has fallen and it would be monumental to come back and win.

“I personally think he’s heading in the right direction, but I don’t know if he’s ready to win that major championship yet. I think he needs a few more tournaments under his belt.”

The pressure on McIlroy is just as great because he is carrying the weight of history on his shoulders as he attempts to become just the sixth player in the history of the modern game to win all four majors.

Not even the presence of Woods or the red-hot form of players like Justin Thomas or Bubba Watson can relieve that pressure.

“There’s a reason why only four or five have won it, and that’s because it is a very difficult thing to accomplish,” McGinley said of the career Grand Slam. “He’s on the edge of history.”

The good news is that his closing 64 at Bay Hill, where he left an elite field choking on his exhaust fumes, was a timely reminder to everyone that he’s someone to be feared.

Asked if McIlroy could somehow sneak under the radar as Woods becomes the centre of attention for the first day at least, McGinley said: “We thought that a couple of years ago when Tiger was making his comeback and Rory had an okay Masters. He had a good last round and moved into the top 10.

“There is a weight of expectation on his shoulders, and he is going to have to embrace that pressure and learn to deal with it.

“Yes, Rory is on form. So the biggest thing for him is getting into contention. Since he had that 80 in the last round in 2011, he really hasn’t been in contention going into the last round. We haven’t really seen him in the shake-up.

“He’s had a few top 10s alright but he has never really threatened to win and getting in contention is big for him. But if he gets in contention, hopefully the fireworks can happen the way they did at Bay Hill.”

All four days' play from Augusta will be covered live on Sky Sports Golf, or can be watched via NOW TV with a Sky Sports Pass.


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