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As Tiger Woods steals the spotlight, Rory McIlroy again looks for place among immortals

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – A large television screen flickered as Rory McIlroy entered the palatial media center at Augusta National. Tiger Woods was hitting smooth wedge shots on the tournament’s equally palatial practice area.

Everything else was secondary.

McIlroy didn’t mind. In fact, the vacuum that Woods’ possible return has caused is a welcome distraction. If not for Woods’ most recent comeback – and Phil Mickelson’s curious absence, although that’s a vastly different headline – the entirety of the golf world would instead be focused on the Northern Irishman’s record at the Masters.

For those scoring at home, the 32-year-old is 0-for-13 at the year’s first major.

He’s been painfully close before. He slept on the lead for three consecutive nights in 2011 only to implode on the second nine on Sunday on his way to a closing 80. He was dusted by Jordan Spieth in 2015 and closed with a 74 in ’18 to finish alone in fourth.

On the Clock: What McIlroy must improve at the Masters

On the Clock: What McIlroy must improve at the Masters

Full-field tee times from the 86th Masters Tournament

Since winning The Open Championship in 2014, he has tried and failed to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National seven times. There’s no need to remind McIlroy of his shortcomings. He’s fully aware of what this week, this tournament, means to his legacy. He knows how to handle the noise. He also knows that having Woods dominate the conversation is a welcome reprieve.

“I try to shield myself from as much news as possible, especially this week,” he said. “We were on the ninth green when Tiger and [Justin Thomas] and Freddie [Couples] teed off yesterday, and it was a mass exodus from the ninth green to the first tee, and then the back nine was lovely and quiet.”

Woods’ distractions aside, McIlroy doesn’t need to be reminded of what this week means. Just five golfers have won the modern career Grand Slam – Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen. For a player with McIlroy’s bona fides, that would be 20 PGA Tour victories and four major championships, it’s the difference between a great career and a place alongside the game’s immortals.

Having the golf media focused elsewhere is certainly welcome, but McIlroy knows what this week means. It’s why he largely keeps his phone in his golf bag and avoids the 24/7 tournament coverage whenever possible. It’s why his eyes widened when asked about having his daughter, Poppy, with him this week.

“When you don't have children, the Par 3 [Contest] seems like a bit of an afterthought, and then once kids arrive, it sort of becomes the highlight of the week in a way,” McIlroy said. “It will be fun to get out there tomorrow and watch her run around.”

Rd. 2 tee times for Friday at Augusta National

Here's a look at second-round tee times for the 86th Masters Tournament at Augusta National.

But then distractions, either Woods’ welcome cover or the joys of family, will fade on Thursday and his quest to join the game’s most exclusive club resumes. His record at the Masters paints an endlessly encouraging picture. He’s finished inside the top 25 in 10 of his 13 starts and his brand of power golf seems particularly suited for Augusta National.

But in those moments of honesty, which McIlroy is known for he admits that the Masters is a “chess game” and he’s been playing checkers all these years. With the exception of Sunday afternoon, the tournament is an examination of patience, not heroics.

“It feels like playing very negatively, playing away from trouble, not firing at flagsticks, not being aggressive. It feels like a negative game plan, but it's not,” he said. “It's just a smart game plan. It's playing the percentages.”

Perhaps the best example of this was the 2020 Masters, which was played in the fall after being postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic. McIlroy played the first two rounds of that tournament paired with eventual champion Dustin Johnson.

“I think [Johnson] was [9] under after two days, [9] under is a helluva score after two days here, but I wasn't in awe of the way he played,” McIlroy said. “It's just he did the right things and he put it in the right spots, and he holed a few putts and he took advantage of the par 5s, and he basically did everything that this golf course asks of you.”

Despite a game that continues to trend increasingly young McIlroy doesn’t appear to have any sense of urgency to deliver on the potential he flashed at the ’11 Masters. At a tournament that’s often defined by its languid, unrushed pace he’s blissfully content chipping away at the elusive green jacket one tournament at a time.

“I hear it's my 14th appearance. In four years’ time when I'm 36, I'll have played my 18th Masters, and that will be half of my life spent here,” he laughed before adding with a knowing smirk. “If I qualify for this event, obviously.”

There is that. The relative obscurity in Woods’ vast shadow and the familiarity of family undoubtedly simplify what can be a complicated week but another missed opportunity would be a potent reminder that winning the Masters and completing the career Grand Slam doesn’t get easier with time.