In-form McIlroy ready to mount a serious challenge for Masters glory

Irishman bids to slot final piece of jigsaw in place and complete a career Grand Slam

Rory McIlroy  looks over his putt  during the final day of practice for the 2019 Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

Rory McIlroy looks over his putt during the final day of practice for the 2019 Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

 

If there was a sense of the calm before the storm here, as players dutifully went about their business on the practice range ahead of the 83rd Masters tournament with only the hum of cars from Washington Road wafting through the air to bring some intrusion to their perfect worlds, Rory McIlroy – the man chasing history – appeared most relaxed of all among the line of players hitting ball after ball.

For a fifth time, the 29-year-old Northern Irishman hears destiny’s call. The question is, can he answer it?

His ongoing quest to add a green jacket to his Claret Jug, US Open trophy and Wanamaker Trophy collection has taken a different route here this year.

No early-year stop-offs in the Middle East this time; just a carefully-mapped itinerary that has taken to from Hawaii to California to Mexico to Florida and Texas before this latest, most important, destination of all: Augusta, Georgia.

McIlroy, outwardly casual, used his wedge to un-snag balls from the green-netted bag on the range as he clipped one ball after another with a crisp stroke.

Around him, others performed similar actions. Occasionally, McIlroy stopped what he was doing to have a word with his caddie, Harry Diamond. At times, the friends would add laughter to the sound of clubface making impact with ball.

In a season which, to date, has featured more than its share of rules contamination – Haotong Li’s penalty infringement in Dubai, Sergio Garcia’s disqualification for digging into greens in Saudi Arabia and the Spaniard’s contretemps with Matt Kuchar in the WGC Matchplay – this first Major of the season has the chance to cleanse golf’s soul, to right some wrongs.

McIlroy’s fitting of the final piece of the jigsaw into that career Grand Slam would do the trick nicely. But his is not the only story of redemption.

Tiger Woods is back – fit, healthy – and with none other than Jack Nicklaus observing how impressed he’d been with Woods’s ball-striking in a recent round. Jordan Spieth, another looking to find a way out of the wilderness on a favoured hunting ground. And Patrick Reed, the defending champion, also seeking some solace from a game gone awry.

Even with the SubAir system that sucks the moisture out of the ground with robotic doing its job, the likelihood is that the course will play a little soft (music to the ears of big-hitters like McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson et al) and the prospect of further thunderstorms, most especially on Sunday, could lead to a stop-start test of patience for players in the coming days.

In contention

Patience is one of those three “P” words – along with perseverance and perception – which McIlroy has adopted of late, and his form coming into the Masters is the best of anyone on tour.

His seven competitive outings have seen him finish 4th-5th-4th-2nd-6th-1st-9th in accumulating 186 world ranking points to move from eighth at the start of the year up to third in the world rankings, while he tops the stroke-gained categories on the PGA Tour.

The challenge facing McIlroy in attempting to get Grand Slam completed is one which Phil Mickelson understands. Mickelson’s only missing piece of the jigsaw is the US Open and, of McIlroy’s bid to get there ahead of him, he observed: “It’s a challenge when you put so much emphasis on winning a particular event, but it’s also a chance to bring out your best. He’s had such a phenomenal start to the year, been playing with such great consistency week-in week-out, I think contending will be a given. He’ll be in contention. You just need those little breaks, little things to happen that push you over the winner’s circle.”

McIlroy has had four goes at completing the job in the past four years, and knows better than anyone the perils of trying to force matters. All of which will put his new Zen-like mental state to its own test on such hallowed, golfing turf.

What McIlroy managed to do with his win in The Players championship last month was to take away the pressure of actually trying to win again.

That victory – the 24th professional win of his career and the 15th on the PGA Tour – was his first in a year. But, in the bigger picture, the success was important in reaffirming that the scheduling he has taken this season, neglecting the European Tour in favour of playing stateside, was the right one.

All of that scheduling, though, has been with Augusta on his mind.

“One of the great things about this course is it forces you to be creative, and I like that side of the game. I like to see shots, to visualise. The green grass, the yellow flagsticks, there’s so many things to look at and be aware of. It paints a picture for you,” said McIlroy, who’ll be hoping that his own brushstrokes over the four days will ultimately finish with him completing his own masterpiece of slotting the final piece into the jigsaw.

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