Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

US Masters: Rory McIlroy haunted by Augusta meltdown

Bubba Watson holds his son Caleb after storming to the Masters title on Sunday, his second win at Augusta in two years

Will Rory McIlroy ever win at Augusta National? Of course! To suggest otherwise is unthinkable. Or at least it used be.

McIlroy's game looks a natural fit for the Green Jacket.

In the same way that left-handed Bubba Watson's super-power fade renders him almost unbeatable around Augusta when he's in the groove.

For Spieth's sake, did you ever witness anything as wild and mighty as Bubba's 366-yard drive at 13 on Sunday?

It singed the tree-tops as it flashed across the corner of the dog leg, leaving Watson a 56-degree sand-wedge into this par-five!

"I'll never forget that drive," said Jordan Spieth (20), who tied-second with another Masters first-timer, Jonas Blixt of Sweden.

"I thought it was out of bounds, 70 yards left," added the Texan, shaking his head. "Yet it's perfect and I guess he knew that when he hit it too."

Watson, who first donned the Green Jacket in 2012, joined Phil Mickelson and McIlroy in the exclusive group of players who have won more than once in the last 22 Majors.

This 35-year-old, from humble origins in Bagdad, Florida, boasts of never having a golf lesson in his life and you won't find his swing in coaching videos.

He plays with raw natural talent and instinct ... sees the shot in the mind's eye and hits it.

There's only one way for this guy – the Bubba way.

Yet if Watson can never be anyone else on the golf course, McIlroy – another extravagantly gifted player – almost gives the impression that he can't ever be himself around Augusta.

On a positive note, it was thrilling from day one last Thursday to see the Ulsterman take driver at every opportunity, even on the short par-four third, and play to his greatest strength.

His performance off the tee and with his irons was, once again, uninhibited and mostly impressive this year at Augusta.

Yet the 24-year-old Holywood native was entitled to feel frustrated with several elements of his game, especially his putting, short game and a costly few loose approach shots.

McIlroy's first top-10 finish at the Masters in a tie for eighth on even-par was scant consolation at the end of a week which would have yielded so much more had he managed to convert the chances he created and curtail the errors he made.

For the fourth year in succession, his Masters-winning prospects were undone by one perplexing bad round, a 77 on Friday, after which McIlroy was matched only by Rickie Fowler as he played the final 36 holes in four-under.

He immediately identified his performance on the par-fives as a problem. Despite finishing second only to Watson in driving distance (averaging 304 yards against 305.6 by the winner), McIlroy played the 16 long holes at Augusta in even par.

Pointedly, that was eight lower than Bubba's aggregate and, you've guessed it, McIlroy finished eight shots behind the winner.

The Northern Irishman's record on Augusta's long holes falls far short of Tiger Woods' or Phil Mickelson's. His best total for the par-fives was seven-under on his Masters debut in 2009.

His five birdie fours this year (one at the second, one at eight and two at 15), were cancelled out by five sixes (at eight on Thursday, at two and 13 on Friday and at 13 and 15 on Sunday).

Though second only to Spieth in greens in regulation, McIlroy finished a head-wrecking 49th, third last, in putting with 125 over 72 holes ... only Jimmy Walker (126) and Billy Horschel (131), two Augusta first-timers, fared worse.

For the record, McIlroy took nine more putts than Watson and 17 more than fifth-place finisher Fowler, the hottest putter at Augusta last week. Explaining he identified a flaw in his alignment on the sixth on Sunday, McIlroy felt he putted more consistently thereafter.

Yet he's long been a streaky putter. In the great weeks, like at Congressional in 2011 and Kiawah in 2012, he appears infallible, while it's rarely an issue in regular events. Yet on Augusta National's greens, arguably the most intimidating in golf, it can come and go with the flow.

For example, McIlroy (left) putted sublimely for three rounds in 2011, then struggled on Sunday, even making a four-putt from 20 feet at 12, albeit at the height of the meltdown.

Also significant, one feels, is the baggage every experienced Masters competitor carries with him at Augusta. How curious, for example, that McIlroy, from the fairway, landed himself deep in trouble on the pine needles left of 10, his nemesis, on successive days with short-irons leading to a double-bogey six there on Friday and a bogey five on Saturday.

McIlroy has no shortage of stinging memories at Augusta, as much as a lot of guys might pick up in a lifetime. In that respect, Bubba's lucky ... it's all done on instinct. Memory doesn't really enter the equation.

Sunday's Masters hinged on half-a-dozen incidents. First, Bubba made a couple of gutsy early birdie putts at four and six.

The tournament swung by four strokes in his favour at eight and nine, both of which Watson birdied and Spieth bogeyed. After the youngster hit his tee shot in the water at 12, Watson produced that ferocious drive down 13.

Watson always follows his instinct – playing a risky approach out of the trees and over the pond at 15, for example, or taking driver off the tee at 17.

McIlroy's more cerebral and controlled. That and his eventful past in the Masters is, one suspects, to his distinct disadvantage around Augusta.

With his game and so many opportunities to come, McIlroy's prospects of winning a Green Jacket at some stage certainly look good... as did those of Greg Norman, Tom Weiskopf, Johnny Miller and Ernie Els.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk