In Race With Day and Spieth, Rory McIlroy Is Barely ‘Clinging On’

April 5, 2016

AUGUSTA, Ga.—Rory McIroy is a Klingon.

Actually, Rory said he was still “clinging on” to Jordan Spieth and Jason Day at golf’s top tier, but give me an opening to use Star Trek terminology that’s totally out of place at the Masters and drop it in the same sentence with Rory and, well, I’m in.

Rory delivered his analysis as a little joke, and it drew some chuckles. Fact is, if there really is a Big Three in golf these days (there isn’t, but let’s play along), McIlroy is currently sucking wind as the third wheel in this threesome. A year ago today, Rory owned the world: He was No. 1, he had four major titles, and he was one Masters victory away from joining a select fivesome of career Grand Slam winners. He was The Man, and he was undisputed.

Then came Spieth. And later, Day. Meanwhile, Rory messed up his ankle, reportedly in a soccer kick-around. The how isn’t important. Neither is the why. But it happened and his drive to history was derailed, at least temporarily. He last won a PGA Tour event at World Match Play Championship in May.

If there really is a Big Three based on this year’s performance, Adam Scott would be in and Rory would be out. Day and Spieth outdistanced Rory by a big margin in 2015. Rory wants back in the club.

“I’d be lying if I said those guys having success doesn’t motivate me,” Rory said. “Of course it does. I don’t want to be left behind. I’m clinging on at the moment. A few wins will change that.”

This is supposed to be a wide-open Masters with no obvious favorite. Day, Scott, Spieth and Bubba Watson seem pretty obvious to me, however.

And there’s Rory. He is a cut above, an elite player, and he is well aware of that. Other players are trying to win a Masters while Rory chases the Grand Slam. It’s similar but different, and either way it’s difficult.

“I get that this course is well-suited for me,” he said. “I don’t need anyone to tell me that. I feel like I’ve got everything I need to become a Masters champion. But every year that passes that I don’t, it will become increasingly more difficult. So there’s no time like the present to get it done.”

The players who acknowledge the pressure, the elephant in the Butler Cabin, are usually those who best handle it. So, Rory has the right attitude. This week, he’s looking for that final puzzle piece — perhaps literally, since he’s working a jigsaw puzzle to kill time until his 2:01 tee time Thursday with Martin Kaymer and Bill Haas.

He is close and he knows it. He finished fourth behind Spieth last year despite playing the first 27 holes in three over. He played the last 45 in 15 under. Had he started better, Spieth’s win would hot have been such a cakewalk. It might have had a Villanova-North Carolina frantic-finish feel.

“I didn’t do much wrong, really,” McIlroy said. “You look at a lot of Masters champions, they have been right up there from the first day. It’s important to get a good 36 holes under your belt and play well. It is important for me to get off to a good start. That’s been the thing that’s held me back the last couple of years and I’ll try to change that.”

So let the experimenting begin. To change things up, McIlroy did not visit Augusta National for his usual pre-tournament sneak preview. The course doesn’t really change that much, Rory said. The par-3 contest? Rory is taking a year off from that, too. He’s had a lot of fun playing it, he said, and he’s sure he’ll have fun playing it again in the future. That future just won’t be this year. It does sound a little like the Chicago Cubs trying to undo The Curse of the Billy Goat, but that said, baseball strategy — and major-championship golf — is all about the result. If it works, it’s smart. If it fails, it was stupid.

He also changed the way he plays his practice rounds. No more dropping a sleeve of balls for multiple chips and putts. No more blowing a drive into the pines, re-loading and playing the mulligan. He’s mostly playing one ball (actual golf—what?) and having a match in his practice round.

Monday, he aced the 16th hole at Augusta National and commented later that he’d never heard a roar that loud during a practice round before. More to the point, the ace closed out his match, giving him a 3 and 2 win over Chris Wood.

Playing one ball is a way to stay focused on the golf and forget about the pressure. “Someone once told me pressure is for tires,” McIlroy joked.

He believes that he plays his best while relaxed and having fun, instead of overthinking, overdoing or overworking. So, that is his master plan—the master Masters game plan, this week. This wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction. He decided to change his preparation for this year’s tournament as soon as last year’s ended.

He also revealed another new trick: this year he will to hit 3-wood of the tee at the par-5 second hole instead of driver. That’s right, he’s abandoning the idea of getting to that green in two. He is a mere 9 under par in 26 Masters rounds at No. 2, and his 4.65 scoring average on that hole ranks 30th in this week’s field. For a big hitter, that’s not very good. He ranks 48th in the field on the opening hole. That strategy about getting off to a better start? Well, here’s where he needs to fix it.

That’s the small picture. In the big picture, there are a few more moving parts. Rory recently switched to a crosshanded (left-hand-low) putting grip. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s what you do when you have a putting issue. Augusta National’s greens have taken many prisoners over the years and Rory has never quite gotten a handle on them. So, is this a good sign? Too early to say.

Look, McIlroy, who turns 27 next month, is supposed to win a Masters. He believes that he can. You would not want to bet against him.

And yet at this moment, in the race with Day and Spieth, who may be the game’s best chippers and putters right now, Rory is right. He’s just a Klingon.

But he has a chance to change that this week.