Signs are good for revitalised Rory McIlroy in Augusta

Dustin Raymond has carried a black marker to every Masters since 1991 to collect autographs on yellow souvenir flags with the Masters logo in the centre.

The 47-year-old, who showcases his collection at mastersflags.com, says nothing tops a pro’s signature inside the green outline of the United States map with the red flagstick and hole location in Augusta, Georgia.

“It’s like the sweet spot on a baseball,” Raymond said.

To improve his odds of landing this prime real estate, Raymond folds the flag until only the Masters logo is showing and hands it to pros as if asking them to sign on the dotted line. It usually does the trick but for the past few years, Rory McIlroy has unfolded Raymond’s flag and scribbled his signature in one of its corners. McIlroy nods his head to confirm that this wasn’t by accident.

“The centre is reserved for the winners, isn’t it?” he said.

McIlroy’s superstition may rival that of sportsmen refusing to touch a coveted trophy until it has been won, and it illustrates just how badly McIlroy seeks the one major title that separates him from becoming the sixth golfer to achieve the career grand slam.

Gene Sarazen was the first to do so when he captured the 1935 Masters at age 33. Tiger Woods was the youngest to complete the grand slam when he won the 2000 Open Championship at the age of 24, Ben Hogan the oldest at 40 at the 1953 Open Championship. Nicklaus, 26, completed his slam at the 1966 Open. Gary Player, who was 29 when he edged Nicklaus by a year at the 1965 US Open, predicts McIroy will accomplish the rare feat this year.

“There’s never been a course that’s suited for a player like Augusta for Rory,” Player said. “It’s made for him.”

Somehow the Masters, the major he nearly won first in 2011, is the last one he needs to have his faced chiselled into the class picture of golf’s most exclusive fraternity.

For three days the 21-year-old Irishmen imposed his will on Augusta National, building a four-stroke lead. The final round was supposed to be a coronation ceremony. Everything was unfolding just as he had dreamed. As a nine-year-old, McIlroy charmed a television audience by chipping balls into the family washing machine and declaring to the world his goal to win majors.

Only McIlroy fouled up the story. He shot a back-nine 43 and staggered home in 80, tying the worst final-round score by a 54-hole leader in tournament history.

This week, McIlroy will make his 10th Masters appearance, which is the same start that Ben Hogan and Sam Snead won the title for the first time. McIlroy is also 28, the same age as Arnold Palmer when he won the first of his four green jackets. McIlroy has played well enough to record four top-10 finishes here and holds the fourth-best career scoring average at the Masters, but he noted that he hasn’t started the final round close enough to the lead to have a legitimate chance of winning.

“I’ve played well, but I haven’t played well enough,” McIlroy said.

After an uneven 2016 campaign in which he failed to win a tournament for the first time, McIlroy had slipped to No. 13 in the world in March. In a conference call with reporters ahead of the Honda Classic in February, Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee didn’t pull any punches in assessing the state of McIlroy’s game.

“He’s completely out of sorts,” Chamblee said. “It’s not the Rory McIlroy that won four major championships. So he’s going to have to figure out a way to sharpen up his iron play going into Augusta. And then obviously there’s still work left to be done on the greens that continues to plague him. ... He’s still a formidable player, no question about it, and there’s still a threat there, but he’s gone into Augusta every year of his career in better shape than he’s in right now, I would argue.”

Chamblee highlighted the fact that McIlroy’s putter has been more foe than friend. In between missing the cut at the Valspar Championship and the start of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, McIlroy spent three hours in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, with renowned putter Brad Faxon, who helped unlock the genius inside McIlroy.

“It was more of a psychology lesson than anything else,” said McIlroy, who also returned to using a putter that was 34 and 1/4 inches long.

It worked. McIlroy made birdies on five of the last six holes to win at Bay Hill by three strokes. Asked to recall the last time he witnessed McIlroy putt this well, Justin Rose, who played alongside his Ryder Cup teammate as he fired a final-round 8-under-par 64, didn’t hesitate. “Never,” he said.

Rose wasn’t exaggerating. McIlroy led the field in strokes gained: putting (+10.027, the best of his career), and took just 100 putts, the fewest of his Tour career.

“I couldn’t come in here with better form,” McIlroy said during his pre-Masters press conference.

Suddenly, McIlroy became the Masters favourite both with the bookies and the pundits again.

“He just looked like the Rory I saw back at Hoylake (at the 2014 Open Championship),” ESPN commentator and two-time US Open champion Andy North said. “Total confidence.” McIlroy, who tees off tomorrow alongside Adam Scott and Jon Rahm at 6:42pm Irish time, won’t settle for less than winning his first green jacket.

Then he’ll gladly sign a souvenir flag as he did for PGA Tour pro Jason Bohn after his victory at the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla.

“I said, ‘Write whatever you want. It’s for my personal collection.’ ” Bohn recalled. “So he signed it, ‘Sorry, I kicked your ass.’ I thought that was great.”

McIlroy might even scribble it in a certain place reserved for champions.

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