Achenbach: McIlroy impresses as a big thinker

Rory McIlroy walks up a fairway during a practice round prior to the start of the 2013 Masters.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- I am paraphrasing, but I vividly remember the essence of a comment from Jack Nicklaus in his prime: “All things considered, the smart golfer usually will come out on top.”

Nicklaus was known as the smartest of the smart. Listening to Rory McIlroy, it seems clear he, too, has the smart gene.

People talk about McIlroy’s big swing. They talk about his length off the tee. They talk about the height of his shots. They talk about his fearlessness.

But nobody talks about his intelligence. This is likely to change. All it takes is one major championship, such as this week’s Masters, in which McIlroy wins by outsmarting the best players in the world rather than simply outplaying them.

McIlroy has captured two majors. Each was an eight-shot romp, so nobody thought to explore the depths of his mind.

There’s something there besides sawdust. When I listen to McIlroy, I hear a thoughtful young man who is starting to understand the parameters of a world-class golf game. Objective, strategic planning can be as valuable as solid ballstriking.

Nicklaus was humble with a splash of bravado. McIlroy sounds much the same.

As the Northern Irishman held court Tuesday at a pre-Masters press conference, he was too sharp to take the bait on a Tiger Woods question.

“Do you feel like you have a rivalry with Tiger?” he was asked. “If so, or if not, how would you define the competitive relationship there?”

McIlroy’s answer: “No, not at all. I don’t see myself a rival to Tiger or to anyone. Tiger obviously has been on Tour . . . for 12 more years than me or something like that. So . . . when you speak of rivals, you tend to put rivals together who have had similar success. He’s got 77 PGA Tour victories; I’ve got six. He’s got 14 majors; I’ve got 2. If I saw myself a rival to Tiger, I wouldn’t really be doing him much justice.”

McIlroy said he has a new Masters game plan this year. “I’m going to adopt a little different strategy off the tee this year than the previous years -- try to hit it into the fat parts of the fairway. Because I’m confident with my iron play, there’s no point in taking on too much off the tee. So there’s generous fairways out there, and you hit into the fat parts and you’re always going to give yourself a good chance to get it close to the pin.”

Then he talked about managing his game.

“It’s just a matter of knowing where to get out of trouble,” he explained. “Knowing where the best place is to save your par or to limit the damage as much as you can.”

What trouble? What damage? He’s 23. He’s determined to make a million birdies. He turned both the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship into personal cakewalks.

Occasionally, though, he starts to sound more and more like a six-time Masters champion named Nicklaus - smart, calculating, ready to win a green jacket with his mind as much as his clubs.

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