Green Jacket required admits McIlroy
World number two has top prize on his mind at Augusta
Rory McIlroy paused for a moment when asked if anything less than a win at the US Masters this week would be a disappointment, but the answer was worth the wait.
Despite his well-publicised struggles this season with a combination of new equipment, poor form, poor judgement and a painful wisdom tooth, McIlroy was unequivocal.
“Yeah, it would be,” the Northern Irishman said.
“Every time you come to Augusta you want to win the Green Jacket and every time you don’t it’s another chance missed. If I am sitting here on Sunday having finished second and having given it a good run you can’t be too disappointed, but the ultimate aim is to win.
“The main golf season is from April to the end of August (encompassing the four Major championships) so that’s when I want to play my best golf.”
The chances of that happening looked slim at the start of the season, with a missed cut at the Abu Dhabi Championship in his first event since signing a multi-million pound deal with Nike being followed by a first-round loss to his good friend Shane Lowry in the Accenture Match Play Championship.
Worse was to come when he then withdrew from his defence of the Honda Classic midway through a terrible second round, initially telling reporters that he was in a “bad place mentally” but then issuing a statement blaming his exit on the pain from a wisdom tooth which is due to be removed in June.
A few days later the 23-year-old admitted that was no excuse and publicly apologised, before finishing the WGC-Cadillac Championship with a round of 65 to suggest that his game was finally returning to the sort of shape which brought him five wins in 2012, one of them being a second Major at the US PGA Championship.
After only finishing 45th at the Houston Open, McIlroy then added last week’s Texas Open to his schedule at the last minute — forcing him to cancel a trip to Haiti as a Unicef ambassador — but it paid dividends with a closing 66 to finish just two shots behind winner Martin Laird.
“I feel last week went really well, almost perfect,” McIlroy added. “I got what I wanted out of it in terms of playing more competitive golf, a bonus was getting into contention and how I played then was pleasing.
“I chased Martin pretty hard and most times a 66 is going to be enough, I just got beat by an unbelievable round.”
Despite such poor form by his own high standards, McIlroy is 26 under par for his last three events and insists he now feels completely at ease with his new equipment.
“I’m very comfortable and I’m 100 per cent there,” the world number two added, joking that he could not revert to his old clubs anyway as they had been given away.
“It’s definitely not the clubs for sure. That’s what I’ve found out over the past few weeks, it’s more me.
“I wanted to do it all at the start of the year, not put something in in dribs and drabs. There was a little bit of an adjustment period getting the driver that really suited me and once I got that, you gain confidence whenever you play rounds and you see yourself hitting good drives, hitting it in the fairway and setting yourself up with iron shots into the greens.
“I’m really comfortable with everything and I feel like the clubs are a part of me now and that’s how they should be.
“I’ve been through these sort of patches before where I haven’t played so well and the game feels quite far away and then something clicks and all of a sudden it’s back again. I probably should have learned more from it last summer when I was going through those struggles, but it’s just about keeping on top of fundamentals.”
In four previous Masters appearances McIlroy has yet to record a top-10 finish, with joint 15th in 2011 his best result, although that came about as a result of his collapse in the final round.
Leading by four shots after 54 holes, McIlroy crashed to a closing 80 and finished 10 shots behind winner Charl Schwartzel, but rebounded two months later to win the US Open by eight shots at Congressional.
“I had a chance to win in 2011 and obviously that didn’t go too well, but it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s my favourite golf tournament,” he said. “It’s the one you’re looking forward to the most.
“To start, you’re in awe of the place. It’s a place you’ve seen so much growing up on TV and it always has that aura or mystique about it. It took me a while to get fully comfortable on the grounds. Took me a while to get comfortable taking a divot!
“Once you get over that and treat it like any other course, with the layout and the shots you have to hit around here I feel like it’s a place I could do well at for sure.”
McIlroy will have to kill a lot of time on Thursday before he sets off in search of a third career Major title. He has been grouped with former US PGA champion Keegan Bradley and Sweden's Fredrik Jacobson in the penultimate three-ball of the first round (tee time 6.41pm Irish time).
Graeme McDowell will be the first of the four Irishmen in the 93-man field to take to the course. McDowell, the 2010 US Open champion, has been grouped with Zach Johnson and KJ Choi (tee time 2.50pm Irish time), while Pádraig Harrington will play alongside Rickie Fowler and Jason Day (3.56pm Irish time).
British amateur champion Alan Dunbar, from Northern Ireland, will make his debut in the Masters alongside former champion Trevor Immelman and his fellow-South African George Coetzee, teeing off at 4.51pm Irish time on Thursday.
Tiger Woods, playing in the match immediately ahead of Harrington's group, will be accompanied by Luke Donald and Scott Piercy as he goes about his quest for a first Masters since 2005.
Chinese teenager Tianlang Guan, the youngest ever competitor at 14 years of age, has been grouped with Italian teenager Matteo Manassero and 61-year-old two-time champion Ben Crenshaw.
TEE TIMES FOR IRISH PARTICIPANTS
(All times Irish, second round time in brackets)
2.50pm (5.57pm): Graeme McDowell, KJ Choi, Zach Johnson
3.56pm (6.52pm): Pádraig Harrington, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day
4.51pm (1.44pm): Alan Dunbar (am), George Coetzee, Trevor Immelman
6.41pm (3.34pm): Rory McIlroy, Keegan Bradley, Fredrik Jacobson