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Masters contender Rory McIlroy looks happy again, which is bad news for the field

Rory McIlroy and Caroline Wozniacki
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Rory McIlroy celebrates with caddie and fiancee Caroline Wozniacki during Wednesday's Par-3 Contest, where he displayed a jauntiness and humor that had gone missing from his game in 2013.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It is now a distinct possibility that Rory McIlroy is going to win this Masters, and it’s not because of the 71 he posted on Thursday or the momentum-building 65 he shot last Sunday in Houston. It’s because of the unofficial 26 he shot on Wednesday.

During his stroll around Augusta National’s par-3 course, McIlroy displayed a tidy wedge game but more revealing was his jauntiness and good humor. During a backup on the 4th tee he picked up Dustin Johnson’s nephew/caddie and pretended he was going to toss him into the pond until the lad was begging for mercy. McIlroy signed autographs on every hole and bantered with fans long after the other players had moved on. He flirted shamelessly with his caddie/fianceé Caroline Wozniacki, whose magenta-colored hair was a nice rebuke to the institutional stuffiness of the National.

PHOTOS: Best shots of Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson from the opening round of the Masters at Augusta National

If it was a revelation to see McIlroy laughing and smiling so much it’s because he played most of last year with a hangdog mien, oppressed by mediocre golf and all the static in his life. His 2013 Masters was symbolic of a lost year: only four strokes off the lead after 36 holes, he shot a third-round 79 that included water balls on 11 and 13.

Going back to 2011, when he blew a four-stroke lead with a Sunday 80, McIlroy has seemed like a cat on a hot tin roof at Augusta. He has wanted it too much, and on a course with a very small margin for error, he’s often been undone by his hyper-aggressive play. This year McIlroy is projecting a different vibe, playing the first round with all the insouciance he displayed during the par-3 festivities. “I came in here with the mindset of just trying to enjoy the week,” McIlroy said following his 71. “My game feels good, the sun is shining here, what’s not to like?”

I asked him if it’s possible to have fun in the midst of golf’s most pressure-packed event on a course that was growing crispier by the minute. “Of course you can,” he said, his voice rising with surprise. “I could hit that second shot on 13 all day. I could pour out 500 balls and hit that shot over and over.”

Before last year, McIlroy had always exuded this kind of boyish delight in playing a game for a living, which made him a compelling contrast to the man he was often compared to: Tiger Woods, who competes with a seething intensity and has cultivated a siege-mentality in dealing with the world. McIlroy, meanwhile, enjoyed a very public life, merrily crisscrossing the globe with Wozniacki and tweeting all the while. But he went into full retreat in 2013, struggling with a wholesale change in equipment, a messy divorce from his management company and endless rumors about a breakup with his gal.

Things began to turn in December -- McIlroy dusted Adam Scott to take the Australian Open and avoid a winless year, and then on New Year’s Eve he asked for Wozniacki’s hand. (The engagement ring, which she has worn around Augusta National, is roughly the size of a satellite dish.)

Strong play at the Honda and in Houston convinced McIlroy that his game was there heading into Augusta. For him, the key to finally getting off the schneid transcends the physical. In conditions like he faced in the first round, “it becomes more of a mental challenge than anything else, just playing to your spots,” he said. “It almost becomes like chess, where you’re just making these moves. That hasn’t been my forte in the past, but I’ll learn to love it this week.”

He rolled his eyes at that last bit, an acknowledgement that Augusta National’s exacting conditions have consistently pushed him to the brink. If McIlroy has anything left to prove as a player it’s that he can handle a firm, fast, fiery setup -- both of his major championship blowouts (2011 U.S. Open, ‘12 PGA Championship) came on soft courses he could attack. Restraint was the key in the swirling winds of Thursday. “I was very patient out there,” McIlroy said. “Even when I made bogey at 12, I didn’t really push too hard.”

Indeed, he responded with textbook birdies on 13 and 15. His three-putt bogey on the closing hole -- a long birdie putt raced five feet above the cup -- was a cautionary tale he’ll take into the final three rounds.

“You have to really grind on the greens,” he said. “If you get too aggressive all of a sudden you’re left with these tough five- and six-footers coming back, and that makes for a long day.”

Shortly after uttering those words McIlroy wheeled and left the grounds, holding hands with Wozniacki. They were laughing playfully, and McIlroy didn’t seem to have a care in the world. If he can maintain this la-di-da vibe for three more rounds, he may really have something to be happy about come Sunday evening.

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