The 2013 Masters could mark another career turning point for Rory Mcllroy. When the week is done, he could be three legs up on a career Grand Slam.
He could also leave disappointed.
But at least it looks like he finally has his elegant golf game in sight.
After winning his second major championship at Kiawah Island’s impossibly difficult Ocean Course, it appeared that the kid from Northern Ireland was on a non-stop road to excellence. But for the last six months, Rory McIlroy’s golf game has been on an extended vacation. As the countdown to the Masters edged closer and closer, McIlroy’s game was still, seemingly, in disarray.
That is until yesterday, when he reversed what could be politely described as indifferent play and showed why he was world No. 1 for 32 weeks.
At the dawn of the year’s first major, hopes for a Mcllroy victory—or at worst, strong contention—have resurfaced. The second slump of Rory McIlroy is officially over. But it hasn’t been pretty.
He had a missed cut at Abu Dhabi, followed by a mid-round WD at the Honda Classic.
“I actually think in the long run, (the WD at Honda Classic) Friday will be a blessing in disguise. It was like it just sort of released a valve and all that sort of pressure that I've been putting on myself just went away,” McIlroy admitted the week after it happened. “It's not life or death out there. It's only a game. I had sort of forgotten that this year.”
He finished eighth at the WGC-Cadillac and then opened with a 73 at the Shell Houston Open—he quickly decided to add the Valero Texas Open at the last minute to get more reps. He nearly won. It took a 63 by Martin Laird to keep him out of the winner's circle. McIlroy shot a 66 to finish second, two back of Laird.
While he continued to adjust to new Nike sticks, Mcllroy was the only one who did not doubt that he would be ready for this week and Augusta National.
A month ago he said, “There's no quick fixes in golf but I'm going to go out there this week and all I care about is my swing, and I know if I can get my swing back on track, that the results will follow.”
Nobody believed him. Now, it looks like Rory McIlroy really does know his game better than the rest of us do.
“I don't care if I miss 10 cuts in a row if I win a major a year,” McIlroy said Wednesday of last week. “That's what it's all about is winning the big tournaments. Of course, it's not going to be great for your confidence going into those majors if you're missing 10 cuts in a row.”
With his Nike contract bringing him financial security for the rest of his life, McIlroy knows he’s playing for history and that history judges by victories. Particularly, victories in big events. That’s another reason why his Masters performance is important.
“People remember the wins. They don't remember that I shot 65 at Doral to finish eighth,” he said. “When people look back on a person's career, you don't say Jack Nicklaus was so consistent. Okay. You could say he finished 19 times second in a major. But what you think about is the 18 majors he won.”
McIlroy said this past week his focus was on course management.
“Putting the ball in play, leaving my ball on the right side of the pins when I'm going into the greens, and if I miss greens, trying to get it up‑and‑down. All the things that you face—all the things that I'll face next week as well at Augusta. You've got to know when to not take on pins,” he explained. “Augusta's a little more generous off the tee than it is here, but in a way, that's a good thing. That means I'll step up on some tee shots next week and feel like they're a little wider than they were this week.”
How McIlroy handles the challenge of The Masters will be critical to the rest of his season. The media pressure will be back on. Because of his second-place finish in Texas, McIlroy will be in the spotlight. He will be grilled as though he’s a prisoner before the tournament even starts.
And as if that were not enough, McIlroy will put his recently rediscovered game up against a resurgent Tiger Woods who has already won three times this year and is the overwhelming favorite. It will be an interesting and potentially historic week.
Kathy Bissell is a Golf Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand or from official interview materials from the USGA, PGA Tour or PGA of America.