Rory McIlroy’s mind focused on destination Butler Cabin
Holder Bubba Watson the biggest threat to world number one’s ambitions at Augusta
Rickie Fowler plays a tee shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 2015 Masters at Augusta National. Photograph: Ezra Shaw/Getty
If only a clairvoyant’s insight could truly help. A little over half-a-mile down the Washington Road entrance gates into Augusta National Golf Club, on the opposite side of the road, a tarot card reader by the name of Angel has a large advertisement which appeals to the desperate and to the hopeful.
She could find some clients among those seeking to claim this 79th edition of the US Masters, although the list of possibilities – and storylines – would likely baffle and befuddle even the wisest of soothsayers.
Will be it Rory McIlroy, chasing the one missing Major title in his CV as he seeks a career Grand Slam? Will be it Bubba Watson, who undergoes a metamorphosis once he strides amidst the towering cathedral pines and is asked to let his imagination run riot? Will it be Adam Scott, who has thrown the short putter aside to be reunited with his trusted broomhandle in his time of need?
Will it Tiger Woods, or someone who looks like him, who has returned to the fold after a two-months hiatus.
There are others, too, with arguably the hottest form of all: Jordan Spieth. Jimmy Walker. JB Holmes. Dustin Johnson. Or Brandt Snedeker? What about Lefty himself, Phil Mickelson, amid glimpses of a recent return to form?
This Masters would appear to have all the ingredients to be a classic, even if the weather forecast would indicate some hiccups with thunderstorms rolling in at some junctures. Perhaps the breaks in play will allow us all catch our breaths.
Yet, only one man is truly chasing history: McIlroy. A win here would elevate the 25-year-old Northern Irishman to a place among the golfing greats. If his hot streak of last season, which featured a domineering stretch that brought back-to-back Major wins in the British Open and the US PGA, has cooled off, there remains the belief that his eyes have been entirely focused on this challenge for weeks and indeed months. The time has arrived.
As Graeme McDowell put it, “Of the four Major championships, if you had said to me, ‘he is going to need a fourth, which one is it going to be?’ I’d have figured he’d already won three Masters by now, so it is surprising this is the (missing) one. If he could design a golf course, it would probably look something like this. I expect him to win a Masters at some point in his career and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be this week. He is on form.”
Likewise Darren Clarke, who was one of the first to identify McIlroy’s great talent, observed: “ He’s the best player in the world, isn’t he? He’s the world number one. His game is ideally suited to this place, he is going to win at some stage. That’s got to be comforting to him, it may help relieve a little bit of pressure because his game is so good.”
Even Mickelson – who, like McIlroy, is one leg short of the career Grand Slam although in his case it is the US Open that has proven elusive – is of the opinion it is only a matter of time for McIlroy to complete the job: “I think the Masters is a golf course, it’s just very suited for Rory . . . . you always need a little bit of a break to win a tournament; maybe he gets it this week, maybe he doesn’t. But over the course of 15, 20 years, he’ll get those breaks and he’ll win the Masters.”
Those with an eye on the green jacket tend to have certain attributes in their armoury when attempting to conquer this course. It helps to hit it long. It helps to draw the ball, or – in the case of left-handers like Watson and Mickelson – to cut it. It helps to know the place. McIlroy ticks the boxes.
He has been helped, too, by the reappearance of Woods. Someone else has hogged the limelight. It has enabled McIlroy – who hasn’t played since the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill more than a fortnight ago – to get on with his preparations in his own way. He has found the time and the space to get it right, to be ready.
“Once I won my first Major (the US Open at Congressional in 2011), I started to believe that I could go on to achieve bigger and better things than being just a tour pro and making a living at the game. I felt like I could set my goals a little higher . . . . all of a sudden, I’m here, and have a great opportunity to do what not many people in golf have done.”
McIlroy has many men to beat. But, increasingly, it is Watson – winner in 2012 and 2014 – who seems to be his fiercest rival in this setting at Augusta. The big-hitting left-hander has found the secret of success here, even if he admits he is helped by recent winter ice storms which took the tops of some of the trees. Like on the 11th.
“The shot is a little easier for me now off that tee, if there is such a thing on a 500-yards par four,” said Watson.
The real reason? “Augusta sets up nicely for me . . . . if I never win again, it is a good place to win twice,” said Watson.
He may be the one. Or maybe not. If McIlroy’s penchant for reserving his very best for the very biggest events holds out, then the world number one is likely to take further steps towards joining the elite quintet of men – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods – to own a career Grand Slam.
There may be speedbumps ahead in the coming four days; but the GPS has been set. There is only one destination that matters for McIlroy, and that is in the direction of the Butler Cabin. Time will tell.