The Northern Irishman is convinced he will win the Masters before his career is over but acknowledged that the stress involved in trying to become only the sixth player to win all four majors will only grow with every year he leaves Augusta National empty-handed.
Looking unusually tense at his formal press conference interview for this year’s 80th edition, which begins tomorrow, McIlroy’s most illuminating answer came at the close.
‘I do thinkI will win the Masters, definitely,’ he said.‘I thinkI am a good enough player, and have everythingI need to become a Masters champion. ButI also know that each and every year that passes it will become increasingly more difficult. So there’s no time like the present to get it done.’
Given he’s a relative rookie in golf terms at 26, the response was a real insight into the pressures of the game at the highest level and a revealing clue as to why the list of those who have won the four most important trophies is restricted to five legends of the game: GeneSarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
McIlroy has hardly been helped in his quest to join them by adding to the US Open (2011), Open (2014) and USPGA (2012 and 2014) titles he has won already by being handed the lousiest draw possible in the first round —last man out at 2pm Augusta time.
It is testing his laid-back attitude for this year’s tournament to thelimit, and he noted wryly: ‘As if there’s not enough anticipation to deal with because it’s the first round of the Masters and you just want to get out there and play.
‘At the end of the day, you just have to be thankful you’ve got a place in the field for the Masters, and if I was teeing off at 6pmI’d happily be there.
‘Besides, I’ve got plenty of ways to pass the time, like completing another jigsaw puzzle, and we’ve got the Monopoly with us. Lots of fun stuff, I know.’
McIlroy did allow a peek into what it would mean to win.
‘I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t noticed what the likes of Jordan Spieth and Jason Day are doing with their wins and, of course, I don’t want to be left behind — I want to be part of that conversation,’ he said.
‘I’m clinging on a bit at the minute. But if I won this Masters I’d be setting the agenda again. To be one of only six players to do the Slam, I do feel like I would set myself apart from the other players competing this week. Having said that, there’s an awful lot of golf to be played and a lot of talking to be done before we can think about that. A lot of good bounces, bad bounces, lip-outs and everything. So let’s see what happens.’
From the moment he first played at the Masters in 2009 the presumption has been that he is bound to win one, given his high ball flight and long, accurate driving. But McIlroy is already up to his eighth appearance this year and had only one real shot to win come Sunday — in 2011, when he led by three shots going into the final round, only to end up in a heap with an 80.
Last year he finished strongly, playing as well as anyone over the weekend for fourth spot, his best to date. Yet, almost from the moment he left the premises, he resolved to change his strategy.
‘If you look at it over 72 holes I didn’t do a lot wrong,’ he reasoned. ‘I shot 12 under par to finish fourth and stuck well to my game-plan. But I was three over par after 27 holes and that’s not going to get it done. I think part of that was having so much expectation and thinking about the Grand Slam and winning the Masters when really I needed to take a step back and relax.
‘That’s why I haven’t been to Augusta before this week. In two rounds of practice I’ve been playing just one ball and also playing competitive games because I don’t want to think about it too much.’
McIlroy’s two practice rounds have been played under cloudless skies and he’s struck the ball beautifully. On Monday he even had a hole-in-one at the 16th — not exactly the day you want one, mind. After playing with Chris Wood on that occasion, he teamed up yesterday with two more of the rising English crop — Andy Sullivan and Matt Fitzpatrick.
‘I’m happy to pass on what I know,’ said McIlroy. ‘They’re friends of mine and I want to see them do well.’
He will finish off with nine holes today. Then the race against time will truly begin.
Tee off times:
U.S. unless sTATed
1.05pm Arnold Palmer, Gary Player (SA), Jack Nicklaus
2.04pm Webb Simpson, Chris Wood (Eng), Thongchai Jaidee (Tha)
2.15pm Tom Watson, Charley Hoffman, Lee Westwood (Eng)
2.26pm Zach Johnson, Rickie Fowler, *Cheng Jin (Chn)
2.37pm Louis Oosthuizen (SA), Jason Dufner, Patrick Reed
2.48pm Jordan Spieth, Paul Casey (England), *Bryson DeChambeau
2.59pm Justin Thomas, Emiliano Grillo (Arg), Dustin Johnson
3.21pm Vijay Singh (Fij), Hideki Matsuyama (Jap), Chris Kirk
3.43pm Phil Mickelson, Marc Leishman (Aus), Henrik Stenson (Swe)
3.54pm Justin Rose (Eng), Jamie Donaldson (Wal), Daniel Berger
4.05pm Adam Scott (Aus), Kevin Kisner, Brooks Koepka
4.38pm Darren Clarke (NI), Billy Horschel, Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng)
5.00pm Keegan Bradley, Brandt Snedeker, Kiradech Aphibarnrat (Tha)
5.22pm Charl Schwartzel (SA), Davis Love III, Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Sp)
5.44pm Bubba Watson, Branden Grace (SA), Ian Poulter (Eng)
5.55pm Bernhard Langer (Ger), Hunter Mahan, *Romain Langasque (Fr)
6.06pm Jason Day (Aus), Matt Kuchar, Ernie Els (SA)
6.17pm Graeme McDowell (NI), Fabian Gomez (Arg), Scott Piercy
6.39pm Danny Willett (Eng), Sergio Garcia (Sp), Ryan Moore
6.50pm Angel Cabrera (Arg), Shane Lowry (Ire), JB Holmes
7.01pm Martin Kaymer (Ger), Bill Haas, Rory McIlroy (NI)
* denotes amateur – Daily Mail
Original source: McIlroy gets set for race against time