The Masters: Exclusive Rory McIlroy interview
World class – check. Long hitter – check. Predominant right-to-left ball shape – check. High, soft-landing irons – check. Great touch – check. Loves the big occasion – check. hot putter – well, sometimes.
It isn’t difficult to see why Rory McIlroy has been tipped to become a Masters specialist in the vein of greats like Jack nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
And the man himself admits that he lines up Augusta National each spring like no other Major.
“Yes,” says McIlroy. “I feel like my game sets up really well for Augusta and if I can be aggressive and go in playing well then I’ve got a good chance.”
It is curious, then, that McIlroy’s first two Majors – and it surely safe to assume there are more to come – have come at the US Open and PGA.
“Yeah, kind of,” he says. “The PGA is the one that I always felt like I had a good chance because it’s one of the fairest ones and 12 under par usually, somewhere around there, usually wins.
“The US open, I actually felt like that would be the toughest one for me to win but it wasn’t really playing like a US open. So, obviously, the Masters and The Open are the two that I’d love to win.”
Small wonder then that McIlroy has had Georgia on his mind for several months, with due respect to his fiancee Caroline Wozniacki, whom he proposed to on New Year’s Eve in Australia.
“It’s the one that you’ve got the most time to build up for I guess.
“You don’t want to say that you’re building up for Augusta as soon as the PGA finishes in August but from the start of the season everyone’s working on being ready for Augusta.”
“You don’t want to say it then, but you are really. All the tournaments after that sort of come quite fast,” he adds.
They really do, right the way through to autumn’s Fedex Cup and the pre-Christmas jet-setting to golfing outposts across Asia and the southern hemisphere.
Yet even though the tournaments never stop and equipment is released throughout the year in modern-day golf, it remains the case that there is still a distinct season. The build up is from January, it begins with the Masters, runs though the other three Majors and ends with the Ryder Cup.
Never mind the Desert Swing or Race to Dubai, what happens between Augusta and Gleneagles will define the success or otherwise of McIlroy’s year, as he freely acknowledges.
“The bulk of our golf season these days, even though it’s a year-long season, if you can play your best golf between April and September that’s when the biggest tournaments are.”
Preparation is critical. Twelve months ago, McIlroy began the season distractedly and in haphazard fashion.
He turned up fresh from a Christmas break in Abu Dhabi in January to launch his career as a Nike athlete and promptly missed the cut.
Cindy Davis, Nike Golf’s president, denies that they would do things differently if they had their time again.
“No,” she said. “We signed the No 1 athlete and we had the opportunity to announce to the world that Nike Golf has the No 1 in the world so that was exciting. We did it in true fashion that an iconic athlete deserved.”
A month later, in his next appearance, his countryman Shane Lowry knocked him out of the WGC Matchplay in the opening round and that was followed by his embarrassing withdrawal from the Honda the week after.
Quite apart from anything else, it was a shambolic piece of scheduling. McIlroy wasn’t ready to compete in Abu Dhabi and every top player is vulnerable in the early stages of the Matchplay.
There’s nothing really that can compare to what Augusta’s like in terms of undulations and some of the shots you need – and I guess how you feel It meant the pressure was ramped up before he had even got going.
The Northern Irishman, though, who will turn 25 in May, rarely fails to learn from his mistakes. Already this season he has two top 10s in the desert, for a start.
“I think always going into Augusta you want to feel sharp and you want to feel ready. You want to feel fresh.
“You don’t want to feel that you’re over-golfed and you’ve played too much. So you’ve got to find that balance.
“I think perfect preparation for me is that Augusta is going to be my seventh tournament of the year.
“It would be great to have at least got into contention in those previous six tournaments. once or twice or whatever, just so you feel that you’re back into that sort of competitive mode again.
“I’m going to play the week before Augusta most likely, at Houston, just to feel sharp going into Augusta.”
Davis acknowledges that Nike signed a streaky player. And she, like many others who are close to McIlroy, senses we are witnessing the beginnings of another upturn.
“I like the way he’s talking,” she says. “About where his swing has got and a different focus. And he’s talking about how he’s changed his schedule.
“He’s already talking publicly about things he’s changed and he’s seemingly energised about how he’s going to take his game to the next level.
“I think it was frustrating for Rory, because he’s been pretty vocal in saying it’s absolutely not the equipment.
“I think athletes go through times of growth and that’s what Rory has been doing. I think Rory McIlroy is going to have a phenomenal year. You can see it coming already.”
At this time of the year there is an element of shadow-boxing. While McIlroy may be playing in Florida or Texas, his mind is already in Georgia.
“You’re going to be working towards Augusta National and you’re going to be working on different shots that you’ll need for that week.
“I think the big thing for everyone is that you’ve got to drive the ball well. If you do that then you’ve got a big advantage. And your short game has to be razor-sharp.
“I think those two things together, that’s where you need to be.”
And yet no matter how much preparation is done, nothing is quite like Augusta and the challenges its severity on and around the greens creates.
“It’s not possible,” admits the Northern Irishman.
“But I think Houston’s a good tournament because they get the green speeds and fairway lengths the same as Augusta but there’s nothing really that can compare to what Augusta’s like in terms of undulations and some of the shots you need – and I guess how you feel.
“It’s a different feeling at Augusta during the tournament – hitting a shot at Augusta under pressure is probably different than at most other places, especially leading up to it.
“It’s the tournament that you’re thinking about from the start of the season and the one that you’re looking forward to the most.
“It all means that once you actually turn down Magnolia Lane in early April, you are more than ready to go.
“Those last few days before any Major drag on, but even more so at Augusta.”
It can mean that too much is expended emotionally, both before and during the early the part of the tournament proper.
The never-to-be-forgotten sight of McIlroy blinking away the tears during his back nine of 43 on the final day three years ago was testament to that.
His capitulation to an eventual 15th-place finish, though, remains his best finish in five attempts.
“Yes, you are, you’re desperate to get going,” says McIlroy.
“There’s some guys who get there the weekend before. Being there for five or six days before the tournament even starts is, well, you’d rather just be going. So I think I’ll play the week before, which is nice, and just get there.
“I’ll try to play a practice round the week before, just to see how it is and to see if they’ve made any little changes. They always like to make little changes here and there.”
Last year, McIlroy was going along smoothly and unremarkably at halfway, only for impatience to get the better of him as a seven at the 11th led to a terminal 79.
There was some encouragement in a closing 69 though, which saw him finish in a tie for 25th.
It is apparent that the two-time Major winner can go low here. Unfortunately he is susceptible to a high number as well, but do not expect McIlroy to tiptoe his way round – it has not escaped his attention that swashbuckling players have often been rewarded here over the years.
Augusta is a course that often rewards aggression.
“It is. I think Mickelson’s always said that he loves Augusta because he can be so aggressive and that’s because his short game’s so good that he feels that when he misses a green he feels like he can get it up and down.
“They put the pins on these little ledges and it’s sort of like every green at Augusta is split into three or four little mini greens. And you have to be aggressive with your iron shots to try to get it on the right level.
“So I think that’s why he’s had so a lot of success there – he’s aggressive and he’s got a great short game.”
That sounds like someone else we know.