Rory McIlroy is not the cat's whiskers with Tiger Woods still a big draw at The Masters
IT comes to something when the man with the world at his feet is not the main event. Rory McIlroy could speak as he wished, wear brash fluorescent yellow if he pleased - and he did - because the individual who had just vacated his press-room seat was the box-office ticket.
Augusta still hummed to the reflections of Tiger Woods. The room was not even full to hear the boy from Holywood, talk of taking the Masters and a career Grand Slam.
There's no pretence from the 25-year-old that he doesn't want those two accomplishments like hell. "My mind wanders to winning this tournament and what it might mean," he admitted. And there was no pretence that he intended to fuel the momentum of the Woods rollercoaster, which has been powered by sentiment and morbid fascination here in the past two days.
Yes, the two had embraced on the practice range yesterday. Yes, of course McIlroy once had posters of Woods on his wall - "I did idolise him, really," he admitted. But he could not agree with the suggestion that he had been "concerned" for the man to whom he famously dared write that letter to say "I'm coming to get you," 14 years ago, and has been as good as his word.
"Was I concerned for him…?" McIlroy asked, searching for a respectful response to the American question that had been put. "I mean… not really. It's hard to be concerned for someone that's already won 14 and 80 PGA Tour events and earned over a billion dollars in his career. I think he's done okay."
McIlroy has seen enough to know that Woods has the capacity to write the story that everyone seems to want - "such a big story; Tiger coming back at the Masters after a bit of a lengthy period where he has not been around." It was when they played a private round at this course together here at the back end of November, away from the hubbub and the 50,000-strong crowds, that he saw all he needed to know about Woods's game. "I mean, he played great," McIlroy said. "He birdied six of the first seven holes. He played really, really well."
There are equally good omens for McIlroy. Half an hour after he had finished talking the heavens opened up, drenching and slowing the course in a way which will only help him. His previous four Majors have been won on courses softened by rain.
But there are also the doubts which can drain a man at a moment like this. For all the ebullience he has shown in the practice rounds these past few days, his record at this course deconstructs that gilded, romantic storyline about the mop-haired young Irishman becoming only the sixth player to claim a golf career grand slam. His best finish in eight appearances was sixth, last year. His one Sunday in contention, four years ago, ended in that infamous 80 when leading by four.
The broader story is of McIlroy and the par fives - hole which need patience, a five, six or seven-iron, and an easy, stress-free birdie. McIlroy is 21-under for the 88 par-fives he has played at Augusta and was at even par for those holes last year, while Bubba Watson, the winner who McIlroy yesterday selected as his favourite for the title, came out eight-under from the same obstacles. McIlroy lost to Watson by eight shots. "If I can just play the par fives a little better, hopefully that will help me do better and obviously have a chance to win," he said.
There was distinctly less sunshine in this McIlroy appearance than we are accustomed to him - confirmation, it seemed, that the burden of expectation is heavy, despite the way Woods has deflected a little of it away from him. The backstory of McIlroy has absorbed America - retold as it was at the weekend when the New York Times Magazine selected him as its window on the tournament. The choice of vignettes for that piece was significant. McIlroy's grandfather, Jimmy, the crane repairman from near the Belfast docks where the Titanic was built. McIlroy chipping golf balls into the open door of the family's front-load washing machine.
But the source of all this fascination will feel like a rookie all over again come 10.41am local time tomorrow, when the green jacket request he has probably rehearsed mentally a hundred times - it would be a 38 regular - are a distinct and distant hope.
It was difficult not draw comparisons with the struggles that have assailed Woods when McIlroy described how "longevity, injury prevention, trying to prolong my career as much as I can" and, specifically, concerns for the state of his back, had led him to his weight-lifting regime. And to make the draw the same parallel when he then talked about how ephemeral success in this sport can be. "I've just really tried to key in on focusing on the next tournament," McIlroy said.
"And hopefully if I do win my next golf tournament, my next major, the focus again will just be on the next one and just try to keep doing that. Because… it is very important to stay in the moment and stay in the present, and you can't get too far ahead of yourself. We've seen in the past what this game can do to people, and you see guys that look to be at the top of their game one minute and the next minute they struggle. Golf is a very fickle game…."
He was right. As sport gives, so it takes away. That's why it is best not ask McIlroy to express pity for the man occupying his spotlight.