McIlroy savors 'fun' Augusta trip, eyes serious return


ORLANDO, Fla. – Rory McIlroy can only hope that his next trip to Georgia is just as enjoyable.

Last week he took his father to Augusta National for the first time. He played 45 holes, drank some expensive vino out of a club member’s wine cellar, and even snuck in a gym session with two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

It’s the stuff of bucket-list legend, a two-day itinerary that could bring back Robin Leach out of retirement.

And for Rory, it was just another weekday.

Heck, the biggest revelation during his news conference Wednesday was the fact that there’s a weight room on property at Augusta. McIlroy described the facility as “understated,” with most of the essentials, and … well … you remember where he hit his tee shot on 10 in 2011? Yeah. It’s right around there.

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The sun hadn’t even considered coming up yet, and McIlroy was going through his usual pre-round workout. Then Tom Brady walked in. And then came Peyton and Eli Manning. Four legends, in shorts and a T-shirt, and it wasn’t long before McIlroy decided to take his 5-foot, 9-inch frame elsewhere and let the big boys go to work.

As for the golf, Team McIlroy lost its opening 36-hole match, but not all was lost. The beauty of Augusta is that a player gets more comfortable with each and every visit, and so McIlroy wasn’t compelled to intensely chart the course. He reacquainted himself with Augusta’s unique greens, played only one ball and shot in the 60s. All good.

Overall, he described the two-day, one-night excursion as “100 percent fun, 0 percent serious,” which is how most trips to Augusta in mid-March should be viewed. It was nice, he said, “to feel relaxed in there for a change and not feel on edge the whole time.”

Besides, he knows that it stands to be markedly different 22 days from now, when he begins the first round of the 79th Masters with a chance to become only the sixth player in history to complete the career Grand Slam.

Now comes the part that is 100 percent serious.

This week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational has a decidedly more business-like feel to it. It’s the beginning of a three-week stretch that is designed to ensure that his next trip to Augusta is as much fun as the father-son outing.

The world No. 1 is the odds-on favorite to win next month, but he has yet to break 70 in six rounds in Florida. That has raised more than a few eyebrows about his pre-Augusta form, but it’s worth remembering that he won in Dubai and has finished inside the top 15 in 13 of his last 15 worldwide starts. Even his C-game at Doral was good enough to post a T-9 finish.

For just the third time since 2009, McIlroy is not playing the week before the Masters. He is trying to adopt a similar approach to 2011, when he took off a month before the year’s first major, and it worked pretty well for 63 holes.

But without a final-week tune-up before Augusta, this week’s start at Bay Hill takes on an increased importance.

By no means is it win-or-bust, of course, but McIlroy at least wants to feel something – nerves on the first tee, anxiety while looking at the leaderboard, excitement while getting into the hunt on the back nine Sunday.

“I don’t think there’s any better way to prepare for a tournament than to get into contention (here),” he said.

After Doral, McIlroy had an unexpected visit from swing coach Michael Bannon. For five days they worked one on one, uninterrupted, rewinding footage on the coach’s camera and working out the numbers on TrackMan.

“I’m feeling much better about my game now than I was walking off Doral 10 days ago,” McIlroy said, and now he’s eager to tackle Bay Hill for the first time in competition.

Arnie’s Place should suit his game – it favors the long hitters, especially with wider fairways for this year’s event – and he expects to play well.

With no other trips to Augusta scheduled, McIlroy will spend the next two weeks at home in South Florida. He’ll encourage the superintendent at The Bear’s Club to shave the mounds around the putting surfaces and get the greens running as fast as possible, and he’ll likely play a few times at Seminole to test out his short game on its undulating greens.

Twenty-two days and counting. For Rory, it’s time to be 100 percent serious.