Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Rory McIlroy ready to be master one day after strong finish

Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on the fourth hole during the final round of the 2014 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club
Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on the fourth hole during the final round of the 2014 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club
Bubba Watson of the United States poses with the green jacket after winning the 2014 Masters Tournament by a three-stroke margin at Augusta National Golf Club on April 13, 2014 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
Bubba Watson of the United States poses with the green jacket after winning the 2014 Masters Tournament by a three-stroke margin at Augusta National Golf Club on April 13, 2014 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
Honorary starters Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus greet each other on the first tee at the start of the first round of the 2014 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 10, 2014 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Honorary starters Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus greet each other on the first tee at the start of the first round of the 2014 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 10, 2014 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Rory McIlroy can hardly wait for The Masters to come around next April after applying a gloss-finish to a frustrating week with a thrill-a-minute 69.

At even-par for the tournament, it left him tied for eighth place, beating his previous best finish at The Masters, a modest share of 15th in 2011.

"It's been a frustrating week, because I felt like from tee to green I played as good as the leaders," McIlroy said.

"I don't think I've ever played as good tee to green around this course as I have this week.

"I just needed to take some more chances that I've given myself on the greens."

After a bogey at the fourth, McIlroy carded birdies at the seventh, eighth, ninth and 11th, but bogeyed both par fives on the back nine.

"I finished even par on the par fives this week and even for the tournament and that's not good enough," the two-time Major winner added.

"You are looking to play them in 10 under and that would be good enough to win.

"I will come back next year, try to putt a little better and play the par fives better and you never know."

Augusta identifies the great in players but also probes and exposes any weakness and McIlroy's six outings at The Masters add up to a fascinating voyage of discovery.

The 24-year-old's easy power; the way he instinctively shapes his shots from right-to-left and a soaring ball flight that allows him drop shots with precision and control onto small, polished glass targets, his game is made-to-measure for a Green Jacket.

From his Augusta debut in 2009 to mid-afternoon on Sunday in 2011, victory at the Masters appeared to go from inevitable to imminent for McIlroy.

To his credit, he shook off the fallout from that year's infamous fourth round implosion with a sensational, record-shattering win at the US Open 70 days later.

All golf looked forward with relish to his return to Georgia each April since. Yet McIlroy, despite collecting another Major title, the 2012 PGA at Kiawah, invariably would leave frustrated and disappointed.

Instead of following the usual trend and, year-on-year, growing more polished and savvy at The Masters, Augusta appeared to be getting progressively more difficult for McIlroy as he accumulated baggage on an increasing number of holes.

A disturbing tendency to drop shots in ugly clusters led to rounds of 77 and 76 at the weekend in 2012 and a Saturday 79 put paid to any hope McIlroy had of propelling himself into contention last year.

Still, having emerged from the on-course and off-course trauma which obliterated the first eight months of last season, McIlroy went into last Thursday's Masters first round as a luke-warm favourite for one of the most wide-open Majors in memory.

The quick march of time was heavily underscored when McIlroy, now 24, found himself the 'old hand' in a three-ball with Texans Jordan Spieth (20) and Patrick Reed (23) for the opening 36 holes.

Though McIlroy wielded his power spectacularly off the tee throughout this year's tournament, Spieth, US Rookie-of-the-Year in 2013, brilliantly exposed deficiencies in other departments of the Ulsterman's game by thrusting himself within reach of the Green Jacket.

Despite giving himself a near-perfect platform in the majority of fairways and finding a decent proportion of greens in regulation, McIlroy's powers of recovery too often were found wanting and his putting unsure.

For a player of his prodigious length off the tee to play his 16 par-fives at the Masters in an aggregate even-par is astounding, though, in fairness, McIlroy had thrown caution to the wind yesterday when he made bogey out of Rae's Creek at 13 and through the back of 15.

Dropping three shots at 10 on Friday and Saturday after booming spectacular three-woods around the corner and into prime position on the fairway was harder to forgive.

When McIlroy was outscored on Saturday by his amateur marker, Augusta National club champion and 51-year-old businessman Jeff Knox, it was universally and unfairly described as an embarrassment for the World No 9.

For sure, Knox would have won 4&3 had it been match play and, even after three birdies by the Ulsterman in the final four holes, he shot 70 against 71 by McIlroy.

Yet even though they walked the fairways and struck shots together, absolutely no comparison could be drawn between McIlroy's grim battle to drag his way back into contention at The Masters and Knox's Saturday afternoon spin around his home course.

On the plus side, McIlroy was one of only a dozen players to break par on Saturday, while it was encouraging to see his resilience in the face of adversity.

Those three dropped shots at 10 and 11 on Friday and that bad bounce which resulted in his third six of the day at 13 were taken in his stride.

At no point did his shoulders slump as a plethora of birdie and par putts slid by the hole on Saturday. Instead, McIlroy rallied with three birdies down the stretch.

The drip-by-drip torture continued yesterday as McIlroy missed from six feet for birdie at the first after following a wonderful tee shot with a beautiful mid-iron right over the flag.

He then ran a four-footer off the rim of the cup at the par five second, his opening two pars contrasting starkly with Bernhard Langer's birdie-eagle blitz in the group ahead.

McIlroy failed to make an eight-footer at three and slipped to four-over for the tournament with a bogey four at four, where his long-iron off the tee fell well short and right of the bunker fronting the green at this treacherous 240 yards par three.

Unlike Friday when McIlroy drastically over-clubbed with a five-wood and made five after blasting his tee shot into the back bushes, as ever leading to unfair mumblings about JP Fitzgerald, who has been at the Holywood native's side for the past six years.

"It is not my position to comment on JP," said Fitzgerald's former boss Darren Clarke. "I don't listen to what people say. All I know is that when he was on my bag, he was a fantastic caddie. He was a good caddie and great fun."

A year or two ago, McIlroy might have wilted under yesterday's early setbacks but this once impetuous kid is growing into a man of substance, as he proved unequivocally with a splendid run of three successive birdies to the turn.

The first was plucked brilliantly out of the trees at seven; the second came via a facile two-putt at the par-five eighth and the third by way of a nice 15-foot putt at nine.

After bisecting the narrow fairway at 11 with a booming drive and hitting a mid-iron to five feet, McIlroy tucked away the putt to get back to even-par for the first time since the ninth hole on Friday and good enough to propel him into a share of 10th on the leaderboard with defending champion Adam Scott.

By rebounding from those setbacks at 13 and 15 with lovely birdies at 14 and 16, McIlroy whetted the appetite for the next chapter in his fascinating story at Augusta National.

Meanwhile, Clarke's love for Augusta was undiminished by the final round 76 which marooned him on nine-over par.

"I played well today but good shots occasionally went unrewarded and a poor one were punished severel," he said.

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