An omen, perhaps? Rory McIlroy – who has arrived into Augusta National Golf Club this year in his quest for the only Major to so far evade his clutches without the full glare of the spotlight on him– didn't take long to step out of the shadows. He holed-out with a seven-iron for an ace on the 16th hole in his first practice round Monday.
You can imagine how that stirred the souls gathered around the pond! No wonder there was that confident strut in his step as he came up the 18th to further acclaim.
The ace didn't win him a green jacket. It didn't even win him any money from Chris Wood, the Englishman who was his opponent in a one-on-one match as they sharpened their competitive instincts ahead of the main affair.
At some point, though, it will mean Wood buying the Northern Irishman – and world number three – dinner. Just desserts, really.
On what is usually a gentle opener to the week, McIlroy – who took last week off and didn’t touch a club for three days to relax the mind and body ahead of this opening Major of the season – brought some electric excitement with his hole-in-one that actually closed out his “match” with Wood.
As the Englishman later quipped: “It was game over, he was two up at the time. When the crowd are chanting ‘Rory, Rory’ and you’ve got to hit a 7 iron, there’s not much chance.” As it turned out, Wood never got close. He left the tee shot on top of the slope.
For McIlroy – a four-time Major champion with US Open, British Open and US PGA titles on his roll-of-honour and focused on adding a green jacket to his collection – his decision to play a “dinner match” with Wood was part of a ploy to get his mind focused on the task ahead.
“I played just one ball (all through), it gets me into a nice mindset. It feels like it is the best way for me, it’s competitive and I am trying to keep a score. Okay, the pin placements aren’t like they will be later in the week but, at same time, you have to get the ball in the hole and you have got to hole putts. It helps put the pressure on,” explained McIlroy.
“It was great, a really nice practice round . . . . I played well,I feel like my game is in good shape,” he added.
Wood, the man who got the closest view of McIlroy’s sharp game in practice, was impressed by what he saw.
“Rory is a quality, quality player. I have played with just about everybody now and Rory is up there with everyone, he is very, very impressive. He is going to be a favourite every year he comes back here and this year is no different.”
McIlroy felt the course would only get firmer. “It’s not very different at all to what we seen last year, a little soft and a bit slow. I am sure they are trying to get it faster and firmer as the week goes on.”
Zach Johnson, the British Open champion, concurred with McIlroy that the course set-up is one that will see a progressive firming up as the days go by.
As Johnson put it, “When it comes to Masters week, there is a progression. There is, with the greens, in particular, they just seem to get that roll out that just comes out a little bit more. And it may not be a drastic cut or roll difference, but it’s just there’s more, a couple more feet of roll out on putts.
“It starts kind of Saturday, Sunday, the week before the tournament, in my opinion, and then it kind of rolls into the week. Now, I feel like there’s been weeks where Monday, Tuesday, they are so fast, and then by Thursday, Friday, well, yeah, they are gettable. But it could be two things. One, they may not be as fast. Two, I may just be getting used to the greens, which is probably the operative or the answer there.”
This year's Masters field will be one of the smallest in its recent history, with Fred Couples – the 1992 champion – forced to withdraw due to ongoing back problems.
Even with Jim Herman’s late addition following his win in the Shell Houston Open, it means that 89 players will compete in this 80th edition of the championship.