AUGUSTA, Ga. – He’s the No. 1 player in the world, winner of the last two majors and star of a poignant new Nike commercial he admits to having watched – but only once.
If this was any other Masters, Rory McIlroy would be the talk of golf and the biggest story of the week. That he’s not – at least right now – is only because a guy named Tiger Woods decided to embark on his latest comeback on the undulating greens of Augusta National.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing as McIlroy prepares for the seventh Masters of his young career. For all his success, the biggest hole in his resume is that he has yet to win a green jacket.
“Does it give people something else to talk about? Yes,” McIlroy said. “But I’m not necessarily listening to anything that anyone is saying, so doesn’t really make a difference to me.’
That McIlroy is coming into the Masters with blinders on is little surprise. He’s got a chance to become only the sixth player to win a career Grand Slam with a win here, and he’s prepared meticulously for his attempt to conquer a course that seems made for his game but has consistently given him fits.
He did it mostly out of the tournament spotlight, working on his game the last few weeks near his Florida home.
“I just really felt like spending a couple of weeks away from this, I guess,” McIlroy said. “Just preparing at home and in private and not really having everything critiqued and analyzed and overanalyzed. So I just wanted to get away from it all, and I feel like it’s been a good thing.”
McIlroy offered a few different theories Tuesday on why the Masters is the one major he has yet to win, including trying too hard to make eagles on the reachable par-5s on Augusta National. Last year he had 9-iron in hand for his second shot on both Nos. 13 and 15 in the final round, only to come away with bogeys on his way to a tie for eighth
There were also times, though, that McIlroy thought not being aggressive enough cost him strokes because he didn’t commit totally on shots to safe parts of the green.
What’s especially frustrating to McIlroy – aside from shooting 80 in the final round in 2011 to blow a four-shot lead – is that his game seems ideally suited for both the course and conditions here.
“It’s the one that should set up the best for me just with my ball flight and being comfortable off the tee here, especially being able to turn the ball over from right to left and all that,” he said. “If I can play the way I know I can around here and just have a good week on the greens, then there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have a good chance.”
No reason indeed, even if a win in Dubai is the only time he has hoisted a trophy this year. McIlroy has played only five times so far this year, clearly pointing his game toward the Masters instead of trying to collect more hardware along the way.
“Just trying to keep my game where it is and do some quality work, not overdo it,” he said. “Just do the right amount so that when I got here yesterday for the first time, again, I was ready to play and just needed to go see the golf course. Wasn’t working on anything in my game, my swing. Wasn’t thinking about technique at all. Just all about hitting the shots I need to and thinking about how to manage my game and get it around here for the next four days.”
The preparation this year isn’t the only thing different for McIlroy. Last year he had tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, his former girlfriend, carrying his bag in the par-3 contest, while Niall Horan from the boy band One Direction will do the honors this year.
And then there’s the commercial, which uses a young actor to trace McIlroy’s beginnings in golf. He is shown with a poster of Woods in his room and chipping balls into a clothes dryer after watching Woods win a major on TV.
“I did have posters of him on my wall and I did idolize him, really,” McIlroy said. “I think if you ask a lot of golfers that are my generation, he was the benchmark. He was the inspiration for us to go out and try to be the best that we could be.”