AUGUSTA, Ga. – Dave Stockton Sr. was thumbing his way through the Shell Houston Open leaderboard on Sunday at Augusta National when he came across Rory McIlroy’s closing 65.
“How about that for a way to warm up for Augusta?” McIlroy’s putting guru beamed.
Optimism can be infectious.
And why wouldn’t Team Rors be optimistic in the run up to the year’s first major championship?
Following the competitive abyss that was his 2013 season, the Ulsterman has emerged with familiar form and free spirit. He won the Australian Open in a head-to-head duel with Adam Scott, was second in Abu Dhabi to begin 2014 and his worst finish in six starts this year is a tie for 25th.
As Stockton explained, “he is in a good place mentally, physically and with his equipment.”
Those who study such trends in Las Vegas have taken notice and anointed McIlroy the favorite for this week’s Masters, which is a testament to the parity that has swept golf more so than McIlroy’s fortunes that a player who hasn’t won in ’14 is the man to beat at Augusta National.
But if all the cosmic tumblers seem aligned for McIlroy there is still the question of the painful association the 24 year old has with Augusta National.
In five starts on the former fruit nursery, his best finish is a tie for 15th in 2011 following a Sunday collapse that literally left the would-be champion in tears.
That sunny Sunday was supposed to be a coronation for golf’s new alpha male when he began the final round four strokes clear of the field with one arm in the green jacket.
But things unraveled in spectacular fashion. McIlroy would play a shot from between two cabins left of the 10th fairway, three-putted for bogey at No. 11 and four-putted the 12th hole for double bogey.
The roars would come that Sunday afternoon, just not for Rory who would sign for an 80.
Despite that jaded history, when asked what emotions he associates with the Masters, McIlroy was predictably even headed.
“Excitement. I think you’re always excited to come back here. Respect. You want to respect the golf course,” McIlroy allowed before addressing the elephant in the room that was his closing 80 in ’11.
“I have no ill feelings toward 2011. I thought it was a very important day in my career. It was a big learning curve for me.”
From that sad Sunday – which he said is the only time he’s ever cried as a result of golf – McIlroy learned what to do at Congressional just two months later, where he won the U.S. Open by eight strokes, and at Kiawah Island in 2012, when he won the PGA Championship again by a cool eight shots.
If success is only gleaned through failure then consider the 2011 Masters McIlroy’s post-graduate Grand Slam work.
“I don’t know if I had not had that day if I would be the person and the player sitting here because I learned so much from it,” McIlroy said.
Yeah, like how to take a punch.
“I learned exactly not what to do under pressure and contention and I definitely learned from that day how to handle my emotions better on the course,” he said.
Whether his ’11 crash course will be enough to claim the third leg of the career Grand Slam remains to be seen. While on paper McIlroy’s game is a perfect fit for Augusta National, particularly his length off the tee and his predisposition to move the ball from right to left, his results have been less than stellar.
McIlroy missed the cut at Augusta National in 2010 and has more rounds over 74 (six) then he does in the 60s (four).
“I’m disappointed my best finish is a 15th. I felt I’ve played better than that,” he explained.
Yet while he will be the older statesman on Thursday and Friday when he sets out grouped with Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, McIlroy admitted that it took a few years to feel comfortable at the Masters and in just his sixth start he continues to learn the layout’s nuances.
McIlroy, however, has a keen understanding of what is at steak this week. Asked last week if he could ever envision himself finishing his career without a green jacket his answer left no room for interpretation or confusion – no.
Like Stockton and Vegas’ best bookmakers, McIlroy is optimistic his time has come at Augusta National.