Cam Cole: Rory McIlroy aims to put Masters disasters in rear-view mirror

 

Slam-buster threat: Convinced he’s got a handle on nerves and strategy for the 15th hole, No. 1 player looks to exorcise Augusta’s demons

 
 
 
 
Rory McIlroy (R) of Northern Ireland and his caddy, One Direction singer Niall Horan (L), walk the fairway during the Par 3 competition on April 8, 2015, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. The competition is part of the Masters Golf Championship which starts Thursday, April 9.
 

Rory McIlroy (R) of Northern Ireland and his caddy, One Direction singer Niall Horan (L), walk the fairway during the Par 3 competition on April 8, 2015, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. The competition is part of the Masters Golf Championship which starts Thursday, April 9.

Photograph by: DON EMMERT, AFP/Getty Images

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – It isn’t enough that Rory McIlroy is the new most marketable golfer on the planet. It isn’t enough that he’s 25, richer than Croesus, and has already won four major championships, including the last two of 2014.

It isn’t enough that he is everyone’s consensus greatest player of the moment, a status confirmed by the world golf rankings, or that his effortless power can bring most any course to its knees.

This place, Augusta National, is still holding out against his coronation. It may not be a permanent situation; Tiger Woods, for his part, said Tuesday he is convinced McIlroy will claim many green jackets before he’s done.

But so far, the course is winning. Augusta National’s knees have remained unsoiled since 1997, when Woods left them scraped and bleeding in the manner of Jack Nicklaus, vintage 1965.

This tournament, the Masters, is the one Rory McIlroy needs to complete his career Grand Slam, but every time the charismatic young Irishman has come here, he’s left with at least one round of 77 or worse spoiling his week.

His tie for eighth a year ago is his best finish. His meltdown from a four-shot lead in 2011 — lowlighted by that famous Sunday tee shot at the 10th hole that ended up beside one of the cabins, perhaps 150 yards from the tee, that TV viewers probably didn’t know existed — is a piece of golf lore that will never go away, as long as the Golf Channel lives.

The Grand Slam is important because once a player is in that company, the rest is the stuff of legends: the only men who have ever won all the majors of their respective eras are Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods.

McIlroy would be among them now, had that sad Sunday in 2011 not befallen him, just as Phil Mickelson would have his career slam now had he not frittered away so many U.S. Opens.

McIlroy should be over all his Masters misadventures by now. He has conquered final-round pressure in all the other majors. This, of all courses, should be right up his alley, especially all the reachable par-fives. But time and again, they have defeated him.

“I think I made six 6s last year: four on par 5s and two on par 4s,” McIlroy said Tuesday. “I’m standing there (in last year’s final round), I had a 9iron in my hand on 13, and I think I had a 9iron in my hand on 15, and I walked away with two 6s.

“If you look at the previous winners here, they’ve all played the par 5s well. Bubba last year played them at 8under par; I played them at even par and he beat me by eight shots.”

For someone with his length off the tee, that defies logic. But Mickelson somewhat understands.

“Not giving strokes back on 15 is the one thing that could have helped me win other Masters in the past had I approached it a little differently earlier in my career, because that hole certainly cost me a number of times,” Mickelson said.

“Yeah, as I look back (on my first Masters win) in 2004, the only change that I made was mentally approaching the 15th hole. The 15th hole had cost me numerous times throughout my career making 6s and 7s on that hole and I finally accepted the fact that par is OK.

“And if I make one or two birdies and play that hole 1 or 2under par, that’s great. That’s good enough to win this golf tournament. But what’s not good enough is making the catastrophic mistake.”

The par-5s may well be the key to unlocking Augusta National for any of the bombers who are among the favourites to win this week: notably McIlroy, Watson, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott and Jason Day.

But for anyone who hasn’t yet broken through to win a major, the real enemy is Sunday nerves.

“I guess the hardest lesson taken from last year was that I had an opportunity to make a dream come true, I had it in my hands, and then I was just a little anxious,” said Jordan Spieth, who was tied for the lead after 54 holes.

“You can make the excuse that as a firsttimer and whatever, 20 years old, that that’s likely to happen. But in my mind, I was playing the best through whatever it was, 60 holes, 62 holes, and had an opportunity to continue that the next 10 or 11 holes and didn’t quite close it out.”

Rory’s 2011 disaster, age 21, was so similar.

And whoever among the contenders drives it best still has to contend with the greens, commonly considered the most challenging set of putting surfaces ever built.

“I’d like to say I feel comfortable, but each putt I’ve hit so far in the practice round, I’ve hit at least eight feet by; whether it’s a 4footer or an 18footer or a putt across the green,” Spieth said. “I’m underestimating them right now. I just need to just get that down.”

Some say it’s a second-shot golf course, that without hitting the approach shot to the proper position on the green, it is impossible to putt well.

Let’s just agree that it’s a demanding golf course all around. And the winner will be the one who plays it best, not necessarily the best player.

Rory McIlroy would love to be both. He’s the only one who can.

ccole@vancouversun.com

Twitter.com/rcamcole

 
 
 
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Rory McIlroy (R) of Northern Ireland and his caddy, One Direction singer Niall Horan (L), walk the fairway during the Par 3 competition on April 8, 2015, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. The competition is part of the Masters Golf Championship which starts Thursday, April 9.
 

Rory McIlroy (R) of Northern Ireland and his caddy, One Direction singer Niall Horan (L), walk the fairway during the Par 3 competition on April 8, 2015, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. The competition is part of the Masters Golf Championship which starts Thursday, April 9.

Photograph by: DON EMMERT, AFP/Getty Images

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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