AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rory McIlroy expects his heart to be thumping a little harder than normal Thursday when he steps to the first tee to start the Masters.
Yes, there’s history to chase, an epic challenge in trying to join legends Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player and Tiger Woods as the only players to win the career Grand Slam, but he says he would be nervous anyway.
“Probably the only first tee shot of a tournament these days that I still get nervous at, the one that you get butterflies and your heart races a little bit faster than it does usually,” McIlroy said. “So, yeah, still get that same feeling I did as a rookie back here in 2009.”
McIlroy may only be 25, but he’s making his seventh start at Augusta National. He knows this place. He loves this place, and yet he doesn’t seem comfortable here yet. At least, he doesn’t play like he really understands how the puzzle architect Alister Mackenzie created is supposed to go together.
Maybe this is the year.
“As much as this golf course is a second-shot golf course, it made me a little tentative over iron shots,” McIlroy said. “I had to learn to try to be a little bit more aggressive, aggressive to my spots here, instead of looking at a pin and sort of thinking about the places not to miss. Because there are places here where you can miss it, and you can give yourself a straightforward up and down. And there are places where you can't miss it. I felt the first couple years, I was thinking more about where not to hit it instead of where to hit it.
“It’s such an intimidating place the first time that you get here, and I felt like I may have shown it a little bit too much respect at times, instead of playing my normal game, and playing the way I usually do. That's the biggest thing I've learned, just try and get it out of your head where you are, and what it means, and just try to execute your shots like you normally do.”
In six starts, McIlroy’s best Masters finish is a tie for eighth. He used the back door to get that one last year after shooting a 77 in the second round.
It’s almost like McIlroy’s courting Augusta National and isn’t quite confident yet that his advances are appropriate. Not in the way Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, Angel Cabrera and other perennial contenders are.
“The thing about Augusta is that for me, personally, I don't feel like I have to be perfect, so it relaxes me,” Mickelson said. “Even though I may not have my best stuff on any given day, I still feel like I can shoot in the 60s, and I still feel like I can make pars and birdie some holes to shoot a decent number.”
McIlroy’s a smart player. He knows better than anyone why he hasn’t put it all together at Augusta National yet. His lackluster play on the par 5s is a big part of that.
“If you look at the previous winners here, they've all played the par 5s well,” McIlroy said. “Bubba last year played them at 8 under par. I played them at even par and he beat me by eight shots. If I can just play the par 5s a little better, hopefully that will help me do better and obviously have a chance to win.”
Unlike Mickelson, McIlroy hasn’t fully come to understand that he doesn’t have to be perfect to put up a good score on this course.
Though he had that 54-hole lead at the Masters four years ago, McIlroy hasn’t returned looking like a guy emboldened by his chance to win. He has looked too much like a guy who remembers shooting 80 in the final round and tying for 15th. He has shot at least one round of 77 or higher in each of his Masters starts since his final-round collapse.
Ben Crenshaw said Tuesday that it takes a certain boldness to win the green jacket. He wasn’t talking about McIlroy, but the two-time Masters champion said something relevant to McIlroy’s evolution here.
“You cannot win this tournament playing safe,” Crenshaw said. “You've got to take chances. You have to take chances at the right times, and you have to bring those off, to buoy your confidence.”
Mickelson won in 2010 hitting that great escape with a 6-iron off the pine straw and through a narrow gap in the trees at the 13th in a dramatic Sunday finish. Watson won in 2012 hitting that crazy hook out of the trees in a playoff and won again last year hitting that risky bomb over the trees in the corner of the 13th on Sunday.
Of course, Crenshaw said there’s danger in being bold.
“You've seen spectacular runs, finishes, and you've seen spectacular crashes, too,” Crenshaw said. “We've all been on that side of the equation.”
McIlroy has the dynamic skills to be on the spectacular end every player dreams about. Tiger Woods sees that paying off for McIlroy here eventually.
“I'm sure he'll have many green jackets in his closet before it's all said and done,” Woods said.
McIlroy would love to add his first come Sunday.