The aura of destiny surrounding Rory McIlroy endures with such unwavering belief that the defining moment of a glittering career could materialise this week at Augusta. After a nine-year pursuit of the green jacket, McIlroy’s legacy would be complete should he add the Masters to his collection of four majors and finally complete the grand slam.
Now with a silver shade to his latest trim, it helps to illustrate McIlroy’s vast experience on his 15th visit and the arduous journey even one of the most supreme talents has endured on the road to immortality, which once appeared inevitable.
Maturity and wit now protect McIlroy from the agonising collapse in 2011, the fairytale of St Andrews stolen by Cameron Smith and everything in between.
Instead then, happier memories emerge when assessing his chances this week at the first major of the year in men’s golf. McIlroy is brimming with joy at the mere thought of that majestic bunker shot on 18 last year. The ball’s unconventional route to the hole secured a captivating Sunday round of 64, equalling the course record. How McIlroy would covet a collection of six birdies and an eagle without the blemish of a bogey once more this week.
That combined with a more polished opening round from the Northern Irishman on Thursday will only embolden McIlroy and remove the furious chase after a 10-shot, first-round deficit against the imposing Scottie Scheffler last year. The American would resist the hysteria whipped up by McIlroy’s blazing final round out in front, clinching a three-shot victory.
But it feels different this week, even if there is snug company with Scheffler and Ryder Cup teammate Jon Rahm as runaway favourites, with widespread belief that McIlroy is finally poised to seize “immortal” status.
“What pressure, how can you keep that out of your head? ‘I’m going to complete the grand slam and join such illustrious company in our game’, to become an immortal,” Sky Sports pundit Wayne Riley tells The Independent. “You talk about great players, then there are immortals.
“Tiger Woods, Gary Player… Tom Watson – he doesn’t get in there as he hasn’t won the grand slam – Jack Nicklaus… Arnold Palmer didn’t do it. The pressure is huge, but he couldn’t be going into the Masters with better form.
“The way he drove the ball at the Match Play. That’s what you’ve got to do around Augusta. You talk about his putting? Some people just don’t know, he’s putting it very well. He’s going in with his best chance yet of completing the grand slam.
“We speak of great players, we use the word great too loosely, somebody who has won a major or two. No, no, you have to win three or four to be great. All four? Then you’re immortal. A golfing god.
“If he doesn’t ever win the Masters, he’s a great, but to be an immortal, he has to be thinking about it unless he’s an iceman and doesn’t have blood running through him like the rest of us.”
McIlroy has played 81 holes practising around Augusta over the last two and a half weeks, the foundation of familiarity with the course brings conviction to his mindset.
“You have to learn from challenges and the scar tissue that’s built up, last year I felt I shed some of the scar tissue and made a breakthrough,” McIlroy candidly details.
“I’m feeling as relaxed as I ever have entering here. You learn more from bad experiences, I feel I’ve done well putting those lessons into my play to become better.
“I’ve been knocking on the door for that fifth one for a while, I feel I’m as good if not better than when I last won one.”
Just one time since 2005 has a player slipped outside the top 10 after round 1 to storm back and slip on the green jacket: Woods in 2019.
McIlroy, eager to banish an irksome habit of starting majors slowly, immediately underlines “greens in regulation” as the key to lingering at the top of the leaderboard before the weekend: “If you get off to a good start it’s easier to get into that mindset.”
While Dame Laura Davies goes further, attaching destiny to the driver, McIlroy’s most potent weapon.
“I’d be surprised if he doesn’t win,” the four-time women’s majors winner says. “The driver has been letting him down but he’s sorted that out now after the Match Play.
“If he starts out well with the driver on Thursday … what that first tee shot looks like will be telling, he could be off and running.
“I don’t think he’ll get up Sunday morning thinking ‘I haven’t won a major since 2014’, I think he’ll be thinking ‘I’ve got a chance to win the green jacket’. That’s a top player’s mindset. You can’t worry about what hasn’t happened in the past, you can only worry about what you can do on Sunday.”
Woods, Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Player and Gene Sarazen may become a sensational six late on Sunday. A lot will happen beforehand, but given the sheer comfort that surrounds McIlroy, it is clear he feels ready to elevate himself to new territory.
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