AUGUSTA NATIONAL — The calm before the storm. Augusta National presented its best self on the final day of practice, a warming sun nudging temperatures into the 30s. The forecast rain has been pushed back to Friday before the weather turns properly Mancunian over the weekend, cold as well as wet.
Weather for ducks and Northern Irishmen? Rory McIlroy learned to play under a cobalt sky, dodging the showers as they blew in off the Belfast Lough. Holywood Golf Club is where McIlroy first played the Masters, imagining himself on the back nine on Sunday shooting for the stars. One way or another this tournament has come to define McIlroy, the fact that he has not claimed a green jacket as much a part of his identity as the four majors he has won.
He says he has reached an understanding with the challenge, his record-equalling, final-round 64 a year ago finally freeing him from the mental shackles that have constrained him since his epic unravelling of 2011. The scar tissue resulting from blowing a four-shot overnight lead went deep. At 21, McIlroy had neither the resilience nor the mechanisms to cope with golf’s unique capacity for torture on championship Sunday.
He was unlucky. Charl Schwartzel birdied the first and chipped in at the third to narrow the deficit to one before McIlroy had hit a shot. The lead remained one when McIlroy stood over his ball on the 10th tee, at which point his day was about to turn nuclear. His tee shot was too aggressive, the Tiger line too tight. His ball hit a tree and disappeared into the woodland before coming to rest between two residential cabins.
The Peek and Berckmans cabins will always carry the association with what happened that day. McIlroy would make a triple bogey to fall two shots off the lead. Three more shots would go around Amen Corner to leave McIlroy five adrift.
The picture of him buckled over his driver after pulling his tee-shot into the cabbage at 13 propelled him deeper into the hearts of America than he would have been had he held on to win. It framed him as a heroic, yet vulnerable figure, the puppy fat and bushy hair a thousand miles from the ripped, cropped athlete that strides about the paddock today.
McIlroy bowled onto the range mid-morning, chatting to Justin Thomas like it was the Bear’s Club in Florida on any given Wednesday. Like students in finals week their work was largely done. McIlroy had already completed nine holes with Shane Lowry and Tommy Fleetwood. He was winding down before crossing over to the par-three course for a hit with daughter Poppy.
The pairings gods must have been looking at the forecast when they ascribed McIlroy a late tee time on Thursday and a morning slot on Friday before the weather turns foul. Should he live up to his own high expectations he will be late out of the gate on Saturday at a course softened by heavy rain, conditions in which he would be expected to excel.
But we get ahead of ourselves. As McIlroy points out, he would not be the first golfer with a game made for Augusta National not to win the Masters.
“They said the same thing about Ernie Els, Greg Norman,” McIlroy said. “That’s always in my mind, too. It’s not just because a place is deemed perfectly set up for your game, it doesn’t automatically mean that you’re going to win it one day. There’s more to it than that. There’s also been players that you would think this golf course wouldn’t set up well for, and they have won a green jacket.”
Thus speaks the wisdom of experience. There remains no finer sight in the game than McIlroy over the ball with a driver in his hands. In those fleeting moments before McIlroy pulls the trigger, the tee crackles with electricity at the tensing of the arms, the steadying of the feet, the almost imperceptible set of the head. And then boom, the club head moves along its explosive arc, returning to the ball with a balletic violence that would break open a diamond. Swing speeds nibbling 190mph, launch angles that send the ball looping mountain high and landing 300 yards down the road are the stuff of fantasy. All he has to do is hold it together over four rounds, keep the mistakes low and the putt count high.
Other than Tiger Woods there is no golfer on earth that would reward Augusta National and the established golfing powers more than McIlroy in a green jacket. He is the Achilles of golf’s civil war, a Homeric presence capable of mighty deeds, of overcoming any threat, of ridding the game of LIV Golf’s merciless threat.
At a drinks reception at the neighbouring Augusta Country Club, hosted by the DP World Tour, there was a notable upswing in mood following the arbitration validating the tour’s right to fine any members playing at LIV Golf League events. Twelve hours later Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley defended the decision not to invite LIV’s CEO Greg Norman alongside his counterparts at the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour, Jay Monahan and Keith Pelley.
The message was clear. Though LIV players who qualify might be tolerated from now, the establishment door remains closed to the Saudi-backed start-up. And McIlroy is the man of the hour, the champion the 87th Masters Tournament demands.