AUGUSTA, Ga. – It doesn’t matter what he shoots: Rory McIlroy carries an aura to Augusta National.
The Northern Irishman, 27, has just one top 5 in eight Masters starts and posted at least one round of 77 or worse in five of his last six appearances – starting with that final-round 80 in 2011 that saw him drop from a four-shot lead to a tie for 15th.
Yet last week, Padraig Harrington declared McIlroy was the only player who could challenge Dustin Johnson at Augusta right now.
Jordan Spieth was asked in his Tuesday press conference at Augusta if McIlroy might be one he fears on a leaderboard. The 23-year-old said yes and then began describing McIlroy before turning to the moderator to ask him something in an attempted whisper.
“Can I say bada** here?” Spieth queried, resulting in laughter from the room.
Whatever term you want to use, McIlroy isn’t getting pushed aside heading into the first major of 2017. The Northern Irishman did fail to make it out of his group at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play (resulting in a T-30) and previously missed nearly two months in early 2017 in order to rest a stress fracture in his ribs.
But since his return at the WGC-Mexico Championship in early March, he’s put together promising golf. McIlroy held the 36-hole lead in Mexico before finishing T-7 and followed that up with a tie for fourth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
McIlroy is also No. 2 in the world and entered 2017 coming off two PGA Tour wins in the final three FedEx Cup Playoffs events to capture the FedEx Cup crown.
If there’s any reason to doubt whether McIlroy can finish off the career grand slam this week, well there’s Johnson in the way. But those high scores at Augusta loom.
What must change for McIlroy to avoid that one round and finally put on a green jacket?
“Stay where he’s at,” Harrington said. “He’s going to win it (someday).”
But what about those high rounds, Padraig?
- In contention to win in 2012, McIlroy shoots 77-76 on the weekend.
- Just four back through 36 holes in 2013. Third-round 79.
- A solid opening 71 to start 2014. Comes crashing down with Friday 77.
- A 70-71 opening that puts him one back and paired him with Spieth on Saturday. Third-round 77.
That’s not a glowing trend. But Harrington noted conservative play doesn’t always work in modern golf with so many players “on the edge to play their A game.”
Harrington feels a focus to root out bad rounds at Augusta would hurt McIlroy’s chances.
“Avoiding those high rounds might mean Rory finishes fifth every year, which he’s not interested in,” Harrington said. “He’s interested in having a go, and the year it’s his year, he won’t have a high round and we could be talking three times, five times (he wins here).
“He may be overaggressive for somebody else’s style of play, but he’s consistent with how he goes about it.”
That’s not to say McIlroy is stubborn. His game may bring with it some intimidation, but McIlroy’s not immune to adjusting.
How to get rid of the high scores? McIlroy quipped that making pars on Nos. 4 and 11 all four days would help, as he played those holes in 9 over last year.
He more specifically pointed to a shot on 11 in last year’s third round – that of the 79. In the left pinestraw off the tee, McIlroy attempted a heroic low hook that he hoped would catch the fronting decline and roll onto the green.
Instead, the ball ended up in the water left of the green and McIlroy made double bogey.
“That’s the last thing I needed,” McIlroy said.
Augusta National can seem inviting with four par 5s and slopes on greens funneling balls near the cup.
No, McIlroy won’t suddenly turn conservative. But Augusta’s wickedness can’t be ignored.
“It can tempt you into doing a little bit too much,” McIlroy said. “So it’s just a matter of being smart, taking your medicine when you have to and moving on.”
McIlroy isn’t only pondering better decision-making in competition, but off the links as well.
If the Northern Irishman is indeed the, um, cool character Spieth deemed him, McIlroy’s one that doesn’t need to show it.
Brad Dalke, a sophomore at Oklahoma and the reigning U.S. Amateur runner-up, is no ordinary amateur in the Masters field. He happened to be the teen that defeated McIlroy in a 2015 arm wrestling contest at the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley. The footage of that victory went viral.
Fans anticipating a rematch won’t get their wish.
“No arm wrestling this week,” McIlroy said. “I don’t want to embarrass myself again.”
McIlroy’s rib issue is no longer affecting him, and he’s had several rounds at Augusta in recent weeks. In Tuesday’s front-nine practice round with amateurs Curtis Luck and Toto Gana, McIlroy started birdie-birdie. He’s also using a pair of new fairway woods (moving from the Callaway Epic fairway woods to TaylorMade M2 ones, per the Guardian) this week – clubs that spin less and are easier to turn over.
There may be some alterations for McIlroy at Augusta, and history does say that bit of change may be useful.
McIlroy chatted Monday in Florida with Jack Nicklaus, and the Golden Bear was the one who reiterated taking on too much at Augusta can be deadly. Nicklaus added that doing that cost himself a couple of green jackets.
“I’m like, ‘Well, you have six,’ ” McIlroy said, to laughter.
Maybe McIlroy can start adding to his own closet this week.