Remember Rors? McIlroy keeping low(ish) profile in 9th Masters start

April 4, 2017

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Rory McIlroy settled into the leather chair behind the dais in Augusta National’s resplendent new interview room on Tuesday afternoon and grinned.

“This is nice,” he cooed.

The Northern Irishman was referring to the space around him, which with its stately oil portraits and tiered seating more resembles the United States Senate chambers than an arena for sweaty writers, but he could also have been speaking to the refreshing lack of hype surrounding him in the run-up to this 81st Masters.

Indeed, of the many storylines to gnaw on this week — DJ’s dominance, Speith’s shot at redemption, the rise of Rahm, the pluck of Phil, the absence of you know who — McIlroy’s ninth Masters start isn’t exactly stopping the presses.

“It’s a bit of a change from the last couple of years, especially ’15, coming off the back of two major wins in a row and going for the career Grand Slam,” McIlroy said of his arrival here this week.

Two years later McIlroy is still chasing the career slam and still trying to exorcise his Augusta demons, but the buzz is, well, decidedly less buzzy, in part because he has played just three tournaments in 2017 on account of a rib injury that sidelined him until early March. His best finish came last month at Bay Hill, where he had a chance to win but settled for fourth. In the WGC Match Play in Austin a week later, McIlroy failed to advance from the round-robin stage.

“I don’t feel like I can fly under the radar anymore,” he said Tuesday, “but at the same time, it’s sort of felt that way to me and it’s been nice to be able to prepare and just go about my business and try to get ready for this tournament.”

Preparation for this Masters is not something McIlroy has taken lightly. (And for good reason: “If I didn’t have a green jacket, there’d be a tiny piece that would just be missing,” he recently told ESPN writer Marty Smith. “I wouldn’t be fulfilled if I didn’t get it.”) Over the course of two reconnaissance missions to Augusta National in the past couple of weeks, McIlroy played 99 holes here. That’s five and a half rounds, and if he’d had more time he’d probably have made it an even 10.

“The more I can play the golf course and almost make it seem like second nature to me, where to hit the balls on the green and where to start putts and know where the pin positions are, the better,” he said.

With torrential rain on Monday and more wet weather and wind in the forecast, the course is likely to play long and mean, at least for the first couple of rounds. That has made McIlroy a fashionable pick. One Twitterer with too much time on his hands posted a photoshopped picture of the Irishman in a green jacket with the simple caption: “Sunday.”

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. During his Tuesday practice round, McIlroy played Yoda to two young jedis. Joining him for an early-morning loop under big blue skies were reigning U.S. Amateur champ Curtis Luck and Toto Gana, a young Chilean amateur who punched his Masters ticket by winning the Latin American Amateur in January.

“Had myself a little Pro‑Am out there,” McIlroy joked, before adding that he likes to try and pay his Augusta knowledge forward, just as Tom Watson did for McIlroy years ago.

Or as Jack Nicklaus still does for McIlroy today. Turns out, Nicklaus and McIlroy – 23 majors between them – crossed paths at the Bear’s Club in South Florida on Monday. Naturally the conversation turned to Augusta.

“He said to me, ‘I took on too much a couple of times and it cost me a couple of green jackets.’

“I’m like, ‘Well, you have six,'” McIlroy quipped.

“But he said, ‘It is a golf course that can tempt you. It can tempt you into doing a little bit too much.’ “

Case in the point: How McIlroy handled the 11th hole in the third round a year ago. “I’m in the pine straw on the left and I’m trying to hit this low hook around and catch the hill and trying to get it up onto the green and hit this heroic shot and it goes in the water and I make a six,” he recalled Tuesday. “That’s the last thing I needed. I was 3‑ or 4‑over for the day at that point and I needed to hit it to the right of the green and try and make my up‑and‑down. Even if you make five, five is better than six. … It’s just a matter of being smart, taking your medicine when you have to and moving on.”

That kind of learned wisdom is invaluable at this place.

McIlroy has it.

Now he just needs something else: a green jacket.