AUGUSTA, Ga. — For months, world No. 1 Rory McIlroy deflected all concern from others about the spotlight hovering above him heading into the start of the Masters on Thursday, the enormity of trying to complete the career Grand Slam among the azaleas and pine trees, win a third consecutive major championship and justify his status as the pre-tournament favorite all potentially colliding to send him crashing down the leaderboard this week.
Then, when Tiger Woods announced last week his return to the game many flipped the spotlight story line to say McIlroy would now bask in the unnoticed shadows as the heat moved to Woods, the Northern Irishman just shrugged his shoulders.
The narrative means nothing to McIlroy.
Spotlight or no spotlight, McIlroy just wants to put his peg in the hallowed ground and swing away come his first round tee time at 10:41 a.m. ET.
“I’ve been ready for this thing to start for a week already,” he said.
It’s the way McIlroy is built. From his childhood days idolizing Woods, where a poster of his favorite golfer hung on the bedroom wall and he hit balls in the rain and putted in the dark, McIlroy has confronted any situation head on.
He often failed; he always got back up.
Of all his enormous talents —– immense length off the tee, beautiful natural draw, and soft hands on and around the greens —his ability to seize the moment also rests with his uncanny capacity to repel commotion or distraction outside the gallery ropes.
He won the 2014 PGA by one shot by making par on the 72nd hole in the dark.
He broke off his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki last year and won the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship five days later.
Tiger Woods watches a tee shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 2015 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 7 in Augusta, Ga.
He struggled with a much-ballyhooed equipment change in 2013 and soared to No. 1 in 2014. He won the 2011 U.S. Open two months after his monumental collapse in the Masters, when he turned a 4-shot advantage after 54 holes into a tie for 15th after 72.
“He’s just a common guy that can do uncommon things,” ESPN analyst and former PGA champion Paul Azinger said. ” … He’s not Tiger Woods. He missed eight cuts I think in a two‑year stretch or seven cuts in one year, and Tiger has missed that many in his entire career. So he’s not Tiger Woods.
“He’s different than Tiger. He’s a normal kind of a walk‑around‑the‑locker room guy. He’s not as revered as Tiger times 10. But he’s unbelievable to watch. He’s not scared of anything, it doesn’t appear.”
McIlroy is older, wiser, better and stronger these days than when he limped away from Augusta in 2011.
He’s added muscle through fitness training and weight lifting and now sports broader shoulders, bigger biceps and sturdier legs. He’s 25 now, the world’s best player with four majors to his credit and 16 professional wins in all.
But the reigning player of the year on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean does have some concerns. In six Masters, his tie for eighth last year is his best finish. In 22 rounds, he has made 11 double bogeys and three triple bogeys.
He broke down in 2011; shared a hug with Sergio Garcia on the 12th hole in the third round of 2012 when he would go from one shot out of the lead to out of contention with a 77; shot a third-round 79 in 2013; and shot 77 in the second round last year.
He has failed to take advantage of the par-5s — he made six 6s last year, five of them on the four par-5s here. Twice he had 9-iron in his hand for his second shot into a par-5 and walked away with 6 both times. He chalks this up to being overly aggressive on the scoring holes he should eat up on a course tailor-made for him.
“If you look at the previous winners here, they’ve all played the par-5s well. Bubba (Watson) last year played them at 8‑under par; I played them at even par and he beat me by eight shots,” McIlroy said. If I can just play the par-5s a little better, hopefully that will help me do better.”
McIlroy is no longer intimidated by Augusta National. He feels his game carries well to any golf course in the world. As for the pressure? No sweat.
“Mentally, I feel like I’m in a far better place on the golf course,” he said. “I’m in a far better place to handle adversity whenever it might come my way.”
He faced adversity this year when he flung his 3-iron into a lake on the Blue Monster course during the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump International Doral Miami.
Donald Trump had the iron retrieved and presented it to McIlroy the following day. McIlroy good-naturedly laughed it off.
He’s won and finished second this year on the European Tour. In three starts stateside on the PGA Tour, he’s missed one cut and finished in the top 11 twice. He’s been practicing the last two weeks near his Florida home.
“The last two weeks have been great,” he said. ” … All the work I’ve done gearing up for this week has been good. As I said at the start, I’m just ready for the gun to go off on Thursday morning.”
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