For a 26-year-old who has already won four Majors it seems a strange question to ask but when does not winning the Masters become a problem? Ever since Rory McIlroy set foot on the property, his first Major as a professional at 19, there was a quiet hope that he would sweep all before him.
Of the players who made the cut he was third longest in average driving distance, behind Dustin Johnson and Andres Romero, and his eventual tie for 20th left us all a little disappointed. Surely it wouldn’t be too long before he got his Major account off the mark.
Now we are eight Masters in. We all know what happened in 2011 – he led by four after three rounds before shooting the worst round in history by any professional leading after the third round of the Masters. His back nine was a horror show, kickstarted by being further left off the 10th tee than anyone who has ever played the course. He signed for an 80 and finished 15th.
McIlroy admitted that he is surprised that Augusta remains the final leg of the career Grand Slam but now he has two top 10s. Last year he played the first 27 holes in three over – by which time Jordan Spieth had established a new tournament record at 17 shots better – before finishing the tournament at 12 under.
This year there was no Par 3 contest, something he did in 2011, and there has been a lighter pre-tournament approach than other years. Two full practice rounds, the first a 3&2 win over Chris Wood which climaxed with a hole-in-one, before a fourball against Jamie Donaldson and Bernd Wiesberger, the front nine alongside Andy Sullivan and the back nine with Matt Fitzpatrick.
“I really feel like I play my best golf when I’m more relaxed, when I’m having fun out there and I’m not overdoing it, not overthinking it. It’s a very special event and obviously it is different in it’s own way, but I don’t want to treat it any differently. I’m trying not to hit so many shots off tees into greens, around the greens.
“I will start doing a little bit more of that instead of just playing practice rounds. If you hit one ball, you don’t hit a good drive, you automatically take a second ball and hit it on the fairway, whereas that’s not what you’re doing in the tournament. I’ve hit it off pine straw this week and rough, fairway bunkers, bunker shots. So you get more of a feel of how the course is actually going to play. I’m just trying to play at more like it is a tournament round.”
As for the on-course strategy McIlroy will be playing a 3-wood off the 2nd tee and not taking on the green in two, otherwise it will be to cash in at the other par 5s and maintain the same plan of the last couple of years but ‘execute the shots better’.
And as for the down time and being in the final group on Thursday McIlroy has every base covered.
“I have many different ways to pass my time. We are working on another jigsaw puzzle and we brought Monopoly to the house that we’re renting, so there’s a lot of really fun stuff going on.”
And what of the favourite Jason Day who has won his last two tournaments and is now the World No 1? The Australian, who has two top 3s in six starts, was keen to play down his status.
“To be honest, I don’t think I’m the favourite this week.
There’s a lot of people that can play well this week and win. Jordan (Spieth), Rory (McIlroy) and Henrik (Stenson), look how he’s playing lately, and even Phil (Mickelson) is a favourite here. There’s not just one heavy favourite this week, which is fantastic.”
And Day insisted that there were no injury concerns despite a back injury flaring up at the Match Play.
“It’s pretty much something I’ve been dealing with ever since I was a 13‑year‑old kid. You can walk up the range here and ask how many players have back problems and probably a good percentage of them do.
“It’s nothing new. It’s the same old bulged disc that I’ve always had, but every now and then, it flares up and you just can’t do anything about it. I’ve just got to keep on top of what I need to do to keep myself strong and fit and ready to go play tournaments.”
Whoever does win it will unlikely be with a similar score to Jordan Spieth’s 18-under effort 12 months ago. The greens are reportedly faster than last year, Bubba Watson thinks they are already at weekend speed already though there is rain forecast for Thursday. His namesake Tom explained that they have a sheen to them, something that three-time winner Phil Mickelson likes the sound of.
“I’m hoping that this year will be a firm, fast golf course because it gives me what I feel like is a slight advantage,” he said.
Day suspects that four rounds of 69 might be enough to get the job done.
“12 to 13-under usually is the average winning score around here. I probably wouldn’t look much past that. I’d probably would look anywhere between 10 and 12 to win the tournament right now.”