AUGUSTA, Ga.—The 2013 season hasn’t gone exactly as Rory McIlroy hoped, but for about 15 minutes Tuesday morning it looked just like old times.
McIlroy stepped into a greenside bunker at Augusta National’s short-game practice area and hit a series of explosion shots that quickly turned into a mini-exhibition. With a big crowd gathered alongside, the world No. 2 splashed shots to four pin locations and holed a few of them, drawing a mix of gasps and sarcastic praise from the gallery.
“What a snot-nosed kid,” quipped one fan with a wry smile.
A few minutes later, McIlroy moved from the bunker to the press center, where he declared his rocky start to the season ancient history.
“I've went through these sort of patches before where I haven't played so well and the game feels quite far away and then something clicks and all of a sudden it's back again,” McIlroy said. “I probably should have learned more from it last summer when I was going through those struggles, but it's just about keeping on top of everything, keeping on top of fundamentals.”
Two weeks ago McIlroy was en route to a middle-of-the-pack finish in Houston when he decided over lunch to enter last week’s event in San Antonio in an effort to get in more competitive golf before the Masters. He left San Antonio with a second-place finish — his best of the season — on the strength of a confidence building final round 66.
“I got what I wanted out of it in terms of playing more competitive golf, getting the scorecard in my hand, shooting scores,” McIlroy said. “I think a bonus was getting into contention and I felt like how I played when I got into contention was really pleasing.”
This was supposed to be the season McIlroy cemented his standing as the game’s new ruler. Remember that glitzy Abu Dhabi affair when Nike announced McIlroy as its new pitchman? For the better part of three months, all those fireworks and laser lights failed to translate to the course, leaving McIlroy to fend off relentless questions about his equipment change.
After a miserable spell that included a missed cut in Abu Dhabi, a first-round thumping by fellow Irishman Shane Lowry at the Accenture Match Play, and a much publicized walk-off at the Honda Classic, McIlroy’s game has regained its edge.
“Doral was the place where I felt like I turned the corner in terms of my golf swing,” McIlroy said. “I was feeling a little more comfortable with it there.” He fired a Sunday 65 in that Miami event to finish 8th.
But can he sustain the momentum at Augusta? His best finish here is a T15 in 2011, when he took a four-shot lead into the final round but carded a gruesome 80 that included an ugly 7 on the 10th hole when his snap-hooked tee shot ended up near the member cabins. On Tuesday, Mcllroy quickly shot down the idea that his ’11 meltdown lingers.
“All the demons are gone," McIlroy said. "They were gone as soon as I got off the 18th green. What's done is done and it doesn't matter."
It may be that 10th hole — historically the toughest on the course, and which McIlroy played two-over par last year — that provides a key to how the Northern Irishman’s week will go. McIlroy said he has a new plan for several tee shots that he hopes will help him avoid making big numbers.
“I'm probably going to adopt a little different strategy off the tee this year than the previous years; try to hit it into the fat parts of the fairway, because I'm confident with my iron play, so there's no point in taking on too much off the tee,” he said. “Of course you still have to be aggressive around this golf course, but I think there's times where you have to put it in play, put it in the middle of the fairway, and instead of trying to give yourself an 8 or a 9 iron into the green, know that you're going to have just as good of a chance hitting a 6 or 7 iron.”
With that new game plan, and insisting that his adjustment to his new clubs is complete, perhaps this is the week that McIlroy will put on more than a show at the range, and put on a green jacket, too.