ORLANDO, Fla. – Rory McIlroy’s road to the Masters was memorable for reasons not many would have imagined.
He missed the cut at the Honda Classic. He was missing a club at the Cadillac Championship when he flung his 3-iron into a lake. And his highlight at the Arnold Palmer Invitational was eating a banana split after dinner with the King.
“He went into it like it was the last supper,” Palmer said.
It wasn’t pretty, but there was no reason for McIlroy to panic.
He finished off the Florida swing with two birdies on the last three holes for a 2-under 70, eight shots behind Matt Every at Bay Hill. He tied for ninth at Doral, though he was still eight shots behind Dustin Johnson and never really featured on the weekend.
In 10 rounds over three tournaments, he broke 70 only once.
Before heading home to South Florida for two weeks of work before the Masters, he was asked if he should be the favorite at Augusta National.
“Given how I’ve been playing, I guess if you go on form, then probably no,” McIlroy said. “But it depends how far you take that for back, and you’ve got to look at previous results there and all sorts of stuff.”
There was no right way to answer the question, so he made an artful escape by adding, “I’m not a bookie.”
But he is the favorite.
And there will be loads of pressure on McIlroy. The opportunity is too great.
Not since Lee Trevino in 1991 has a player gone to the Masters with a chance to complete the Grand Slam. Trevino never cared for Augusta National, never seriously contended there and besides, he was 51. McIlroy had a four-shot lead going into the final round in 2011 and shot 80.
He knows he can play there. He’s only 25. And he’s No. 1 in the world.
Beyond the Grand Slam, he can join Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan as the only players with three straight majors since the Masters began in 1934. Those opportunities don’t come along very often, which is why Woods points to the 2000 PGA Championship (his third straight major) as his most clutch putting performance.
The good news for McIlroy is the buildup to the Masters is over – at least for now.
The first three months of the year were all about Augusta National, and the hype wasn’t quite as strong as it could have been. He was asked about it a fair amount, though not enough to consume him. Either way, he was prepared for it.
“I was expecting to get a lot of questions,” he said. “It’s a big deal what I’m trying to achieve over there.”
It’s difficult to measure progress over five tournaments spread across two months, though his win in Dubai and runner-up finish in Abu Dhabi should not be overlooked.
McIlroy said the best golf he was playing going into the Masters was in 2011. He didn’t win in five events leading to the Augusta, with a runner-up in Abu Dhabi and a tie for 10th in Dubai and Doral. By that measure, this year has been slightly better.
There was a glimpse of impatience early in the Florida swing, particularly at Doral when he had trouble trusting the difficult shots, such as the pull with a 3-iron into the lake, and the club that soon followed the ball into the water. McIlroy managed to turn that into a light-hearted moment. Donald Trump managed to turn that into a three-day news event. And then it was time to move on.
The real culprit has been his wedges and irons. He’s simply not hitting it very close for a reasonable chance at making birdie putts. In a tiny sample size, but McIlroy’s average proximity from 125 yards to 150 yards was 30 feet in the Florida swing, or about 10 feet farther away than his 2014 average on the PGA Tour.
The good news for McIlroy is no one is talking about a slump. And there’s something to be said about not peaking too early.
Woods was going for an unprecedented sweep of the majors in 2001 and there were suggestions of a slump. He went six tournaments without winning (though he was never worse than a tie for 13th). The Masters was approaching. The pressure was building.
And then Woods won Bay Hill, The Players Championship and the Masters. It’s all about peaking at the right time.
The Masters starts in 17 days.