McIlroy says his game is in a 'great place'

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland speaks to the media during a practice round prior to the start of the 2012 Masters Tournament at Augusta National.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – During a practice round last week, Rory McIlroy took a quick glance at the cabins left of Augusta National’s 10th hole. It was near those white buildings tucked in the trees that his lead came undone in the final round of last year’s Masters. Few, if any, have come so close to those structures with a tee shot, but one thing surprised him when he returned to the course for the first time since 2011.

“I can’t believe how close the cabins are,” he said. “They are only 50 yards off the tee.”

McIlroy can laugh about it now because of all that has happened since he lost a four-round lead here last year. He’s now a major champion, having dominated the 2011 U.S. Open. He reached No. 1 in the world, albeit briefly. An improved putting stroke has made him a more complete player. There has been change off the course, as well. He has a new management company, having left Chubby Chandler’s ISM stable for Horizon Sports, and has a new girlfriend in Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, whom he began dating last summer.

“I definitely feel like I’ve come back here the same person, but just with a different attitude,” McIlroy said in his Tuesday press conference. “I came in here last year hoping to do well and maybe have a chance to win or whatever. But this year, I’m coming in with the attitude that I want to win.”

McIlroy is a favorite for obvious reasons. He hasn’t finished worse than 11th in 12 official worldwide starts since the PGA Championship. He has won twice (not counting the Shanghai Masters, which didn’t receive world-ranking points) and has finished in the top 3 nine times.

Improved putting under Dave Stockton’s tutelage is one reason for that consistency. McIlroy’s enviable full swing seems to be embedded in his genetic code. His putting is becoming second nature, as well.

“I feel a lot more natural, a lot more feel in my stroke,” he said. “That’s been the biggest change in my game since last year.”

Some have billed this Masters as a heavyweight title fight between McIlroy and Tiger Woods, with little regard for the rest of the field. There’s good reason for that. Golf is always looking for a rivalry, something it hasn’t truly had since Woods burst onto the Tour in 1996.

Both players are coming off victories on the Florida Swing. McIlroy won the Honda Classic, holding off a charging Woods with several crucial par saves on the final nine. Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational three weeks later.

“I’m in a great place,” said McIlroy, 22, of Northern Ireland. “I feel like my golf game is in great shape. I’m coming back here a much more experienced player ... and a much better player than the player who came here last year.”

Much of that learning occurred at this very place. He held a four-stroke lead with one round remaining in last year’s Masters. He made the turn in 1-over 37, but still held a one-stroke lead on the 10th tee. Then he snap-hooked his tee shot on the par-4 10th. He triple bogeyed that hole, bogeyed No. 11 and four-putted No. 12. Just like that, his chances were over.

McIlroy realized that trying to change the characteristics that endear him to so many contributed to his downfall. He’s approachable and accessible, open and inviting, but tried to be more aggressive and intimidating in the final round, much like the man in the red shirt to whom he’s often compared.

“I was always looking at the ground. I was very insular,” McIlroy said. “Sort of like I didn’t want the outside world to get in instead of embracing the situation.”

McIlroy hasn’t played since finishing third at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, a break of three weeks. “I just feel fresh,” he said. “Feel ready to go.”

He’ll have to be, for much is expected of him.

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