Overlook McIlroy at Masters at your own risk

Rory McIlroy (center) plays a Masters practice round with amateurs Curtis Luck (left) and Toto Gana making their way down the seventh fairway at Augusta National Golf Club on Tuesday, April 4, 2017, in Augusta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Caption
Rory McIlroy (center) plays a Masters practice round with amateurs Curtis Luck (left) and Toto Gana making their way down the seventh fairway at Augusta National Golf Club on Tuesday, April 4, 2017, in Augusta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

As impossible as it may seem for someone who is in the prime of his athletic career, has won four majors and needs one more to complete the career grand slam before he turns 28 years old, Rory McIlroy is almost an afterthought at this year’s Masters.

Such are the shadows, as long as those of the pines that frame Augusta National’s fairways, cast by Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth this week.

“I think it’s been a relatively quiet buildup to the Masters for me, which has been quite nice,” he said.

McIlroy he has felt the warmth and the cold of the spotlight that Spieth and Johnson feel now.

All eyes are on Spieth because, like McIlory six years ago, he suffered his own back-nine meltdown last year in trying to win his second consecutive green jacket.

McIlroy said he doubts it will happen to Spieth again.

“I mean, look, it’s tough to get over,” he said. “But you very quickly snap out of it because this golf course and this tournament requires the utmost concentration and focus, and you really just have to focus on your job that day, and that’s trying to shoot the best score possible.”

And McIlroy knows what Johnson is feeling as the prohibitive favorite because he came to Augusta in 2015 on the heels of winning the 2014 British Open and PGA Championship in 2014. His game was on. He was confident. Augusta National didn’t care. He couldn’t go low with his scoring until he shot 66 on Sunday. He finished 12 under and in fourth place.

“If Dustin is the clear favorite, Rory is 1A in my book this week,” David Duval said on The Golf Channel on Tuesday. “Coming in, he is that much fresher than he has been in the past. He has been paying well, and he has nothing to lose. Not a lot of people are talking about him because of what Dustin has been doing recently.”

That quiet cocoon that McIlroy is in may have popped like the sound of a driver striping a golf ball Tuesday when McIlroy revealed that he has played 99 holes at Augusta National in the past two weeks in preparation for this week’s tournament.

That work may have been borne of the frustration that has come with McIlroy’s inability to conquer Augusta National’s contours.

After famously melting down in 2011 with a final-round 80 that took him from third-round leader to tied for 15th, he has posted top-10 finishes in each of the past three years.

“As a golfer, I learned a few things,” he said. “As a person, I guess just to never give up and to persevere. I feel like I’ve taken lessons from that day and they have served me well to this point.”

He played 99 holes at Augusta National because he said he wants the course and the club to become second nature.

He knows where the pins will likely be placed. It seems McIlory is searching for a certain feeling.

He played 27 holes before the Match Play Championship on March 26 and followed that with 54 holes across two days last week.

“I played matches, shot scores, played one ball, tried to do it that way because obviously that’s what we’re doing in the tournament, and I thought that was a good way to prepare,” he said.

In addition to the work he has done the past two weeks, he has three top-10 finishes in four events on the PGA Tour and another on the European Tour this season.

So, overlook McIlroy. He has the scars from Augusta National that he said have served him well in winning four majors. He has the game. He has the maturity.

And, he may not have to worry about the spotlight.

“If I go out and play the way that I know I can, hopefully I’ll slip into one of those greens jackets sooner rather than later,” he told The Golf Channel.