Rory McIlroy already has his share of ghosts to contend with every time he shows up in Augusta. He added another last month.
Taking a re-familiarization trip with his father for a few friendly rounds at Augusta National, McIlroy had a little match going with club member Jeff Knox. In 2014, Knox played as the noncompeting marker with McIlroy in Saturday’s third round and famously beat him by a stroke, 70-71.
In March, Knox beat him again – this time with the aid of four strokes a side.
“Lost that match on the first tee,” McIlroy said.
The Masters remains the last piece in the career grand slam puzzle for McIlroy, and he often seems to be a shot down on the first tee. While his game seems perfectly fitted for a green jacket, he’s yet to avoid the kind of stumbles and blunders that stand in the way of fulfilling that goal.
The advice he offers rookies would serve himself well.
“Just embrace the week and have fun and enjoy yourself,” is his tip for first-timers. “I think the more you can do that, the more Augusta lends itself to letting you just play, and I think if you overthink it then that’s when Augusta can really get you. If you just go out and play and be creative and sort of use your imagination, you can have a really great week.”
This will be McIlroy’s 10th start in the Masters, and he’s finished inside the top 10 the past four years. This will be his fourth crack at completing his career slam – which has intensified the hype surrounding him every time he comes to Augusta.
Being played at the same venue every year, the Masters doesn’t allow the chances to shut out memories of previous successes and failures – both a player’s own and those they’ve watched. Its history can be intimidating.
“It’s more the aura of the place, the things you have in your head about Augusta and about the Masters and watching all the stuff on TV,” McIlroy said. “I think if we were to play the other majors at the same venues every year it would be the same thing. Pebble or Shinnecock or whatever for the U.S. Open, sort of be the same way. I think because you go back to the same venue it has a little bit of mystique about it and little bit of aura that others don’t.”
McIlroy has grown more comfortable with Augusta’s mystique since he first played at age 19.
“I was intimidated by the place,” he said. “That was my feeling of being at Augusta. Because I’ve gotten to know the staff, because I’ve gotten to know the caddies, gotten to know quite a lot of members, it’s not so intimidating anymore. So I feel a lot more comfortable not just playing the golf course but just in the grounds. That can be quite an unnerving place the first time you go. I’m a lot more comfortable there.”
After taking a couple of months off at the end of 2017 to recover from injury, McIlroy got off to a strong start in the Middle East before cooling off when he returned to the PGA Tour and slipping outside of the top 10 in the world rankings for the first time since 2014. His confidence, however, got a huge boost with a timely victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he charged home in 64 to pull away from an elite Sunday cast that included Henrik Stenson, Tiger Woods and Justin Rose. That victory ended a drought dating back to the 2016 Tour Championship and jumped him back to No. 7 in the world.
He packed six tournaments into seven weeks before taking the week off before the Masters – twice the workload of last year, when he was nursing some ailments.
“I’ll tell you after Augusta,” he said of judging his strategy. “I definitely don’t feel like I’ve got stale or in any way frustrated or feel like it’s tedious playing all these weeks in a row or monotonous in any way. I like being out here; I like playing golf. I feel like over the last couple of months of 2017 into this year I sort of rediscovered my love for the game a little bit. I’m even enjoying playing casual rounds of golf more.”