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Punch Shot: What will make McIlroy a Masters contender?

Rory McIlroy in the 2013 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship news conference
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Rory McIlroy is playing in this week's Valero Texas Open, a late addition to his pre-Masters schedule after determining that he needed more tournament play. With two majors to his credit, McIlroy has the talent to win at Augusta, but his current form makes his chances questionable. So, what do you need to see from him this week to make you think he can win the Masters?


How about four rounds, more encouraging signs?

More specifically, I’d like to see McIlroy sharpen his play with the short irons and wedges. For approaches from 50-75 yards, 75-100, 100-125 and 125-150, he ranks no better than 116th on Tour. That’s rust, plain and simple. And at Augusta, the PGA Tour’s driving-distance leader will have several approaches per round from those distances. Precision is a must.

His right-to-left ball flight will work well at Augusta, even if he’s finding barely more than half of his fairways. And he’s putting reasonably well, ranking 39th in strokes gained-putting.

But his iron game remains a work in progress. Four rounds at TPC San Antonio should help fine-tune that aspect of his game. It just might be the missing link.


I would like to see Rory McIlroy's teeth, make sure there's no more troubling dental issues before he heads to Augusta National.

Barring the presence of pulpal necrosis or a periapical abscess, I'm not ruling out the possibility McIlroy finds the form he needs to win the Masters regardless of whether he contends in Texas this week or not.

We've seen players find their best form almost overnight this year.

Michael Thompson (Honda Classic) and D.A. Points (Shell Houston Open) reminded us just how quickly players can go from wondering if they'll ever make another cut to winning. The light can go on when you least expect it, but I will say the odds aren't with a guy going to Augusta National who is still searching for his game. I want to see what isn't always obvious to the eye to persuade me McIlroy's ready to win the Masters. I want to see him playing with confidence. That's all he needs going to Augusta National, a little belief his form is there. 


Progress, however he defines it.

That’s what we expect from Rory McIlroy this week at the Valero Texas Open. Whether that means a victory, a top-10 finish or simply a steady start – which the Ulsterman has struggled with in 2013 – as long as he is trending in the right direction before he turns onto Magnolia Lane he should maintain his status on the short list of Masters contenders.

In practical terms, progress was measured with rounds of 68-65-72-69 and a T-7 at last year’s FedEx St. Jude Classic. Like the Texas Open, McIlroy’s start in Memphis was also a last-minute addition to his schedule following a similar competitive swoon and was followed a month later by an eight-stroke triumph at the PGA Championship.

Starting at last year’s Players Championship, the world No. 2 had missed four of five cuts, including a dismal showing at the U.S. Open. The only bright spot was his T-7 in Memphis – progress.

In 2013, McIlroy finds himself in a similarly competitive valley that features, in order, a missed cut (Abu Dhabi), T-33 (WGC-Accenture Match Play), WD (Honda Classic), T-8 (WGC-Cadillac) and T-45 (Shell Houston Open).

He doesn’t need a walk-off in San Antonio to prove he’s Masters ready, just a reason to be optimistic.


You know what Rory McIlroy needs to do in order to become a serious contender at the Masters? Show up.

Sure, it makes for good copy if we sit here and debate how his recent string of inconsistent results may affect him at Augusta, but form is fleeting anyway. The truth is, I’m less likely to pick a player who has peaked already (say, Brandt Snedeker) than one who’s about to hit that uptick.

If I were a close adviser to McIlroy, I’d sit down with him this week and tell him a little story about D.A. Points. Prior to this past week, Points looked completely lost on the course, with just two made cuts in nine starts this season and no finish better than T-63. And yet, he still went out and won the Shell Houston Open. Moral of the story? Past results are hardly a perfect indicator of future success.

OK, so maybe the Shell Houston Open isn’t the Masters. Fair enough. Then I’ll just point to a guy like Trevor Immelman, who not only had missed four of eight cuts before his 2008 Masters victory; he ranked near the bottom on the PGA Tour in nearly every major statistical category. In fact, many recent major winners hardly had their fastball working beforehand. Webb Simpson missed the cut by a mile prior to winning the 2012 U.S. Open; Darren Clarke was 45th or worse in his last five starts before taking the ’11 Open Championship; Keegan Bradley hadn’t placed better than 15th in seven starts leading up to his ’11 PGA Championship triumph.

When it comes to prognosticating the chances of top players at the majors, we tend to have selective memories. Having a hot hand may be preferable to being stone cold, but neither is a guarantee of certain results. All of which should give McIlroy plenty of confidence heading into the Masters – recent success be damned.