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As Masters week begins at Augusta, can McIlroy's new coach Cowen make the difference he needs?

 

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Flashback: Rory McIlroy walks toward the 15th green during the third round of the 2018 Masters Tournament

Flashback: Rory McIlroy walks toward the 15th green during the third round of the 2018 Masters Tournament

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Flashback: Rory McIlroy walks toward the 15th green during the third round of the 2018 Masters Tournament

April is here. The Masters is upon us. The annual festival of amateur psychology that surrounds Rory McIlroy's quest to win at Augusta National has begun.

This is one of McIlroy's personal Masters traditions: the intense glare of scrutiny and expectation that lead him bleary-eyed into the first week in April.

As much a Masters custom as the Par 3 contest or the champions dinner for which he has yet to receive an invitation.

Think of any athlete. Someone who, for whatever reason, has appeared destined to win a particular competition.

It's almost impossible to conjure one as seemingly fated to win it as McIlroy is with the Masters. But here we are. Attempt number 13. Six top 10s. No green jackets.

Eleven of 12 cuts made. Over £2m prize money banked. But no Sunday evening schmaltz with Jim Nantz in Butler Cabin.

On Thursday, he begins Grand Slam attempt number seven. The six occasions previously he has headed for Georgia attempting to join Sarazen, Hogan, Player, Nicklaus and Woods among the most exalted have ended in disappointment.

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Golf coach Pete Cowen

Golf coach Pete Cowen

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Golf coach Pete Cowen

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McIlroy's six top 10s in his last seven appearances exaggerate how close he has actually been to adding the year's first major to the set.

And yet for all the familiarity with McIlroy's crusade, for all the ceremony surrounding the tournament itself, this year feels different.

For one thing, the most recent Masters was less than five months ago, when McIlroy finished fifth despite an opening 75.

Insufficient time has passed since then for the flow of hype to rise above waist level.

He is ranked number 11 in world, his lowest standing approaching this tournament since 2010.

In his last appearance at the WGC Matchplay in Texas, McIlroy was horsewhipped 6&5 by Ian Poulter. Before that, he shot 79 and 75 in his delayed defence of the Players Championship at Sawgrass.

None of this reads well from a form guide.

Enter Pete Cowen.

It's almost two decades since McIlroy failed the first test set for him by his new swing coach. Then, Cowen was helping with the Irish men's amateur side.

Even at 13, McIlroy's reputation preceded him. So out of professional curiosity, Cowen sought out the prodigy and put it up to him.

"You can't hit this shot, can you?"

The shot he selected had a prohibitive level of technical difficulty; a high, soft 30-yard bunker shot to a back-lying pin.

Immediately accepting the terms, McIlroy dived head first into his challenge and failed. The execution of the shot was beyond him. Too tricky. Too delicate.

Cowen, sensing he'd roped the precocious youngster in, shook his head in mock disgust.

In a series of vignettes he wrote for Golf Digest in 2019, Cowen recalled that what struck most about McIlroy's reaction was his portraying "not an ounce of embarrassment".

"Next time I see you," he promised, "I'll be able to hit it."

Not long after, Cowen was in Carton House where - lo and behold - McIlroy pounced.

"Watch this."

McIlroy didn't just successfully play the shot. He did it with all the ease of someone casually demonstrating their recently-acquired skill of bike cycling.

"Even at that time," Cowen wrote, "Rory felt there was nothing he couldn't do."

Now?

The move to enlist Cowen, one of the most respected and famously blunt coaches in the game, is clearly significant.

The 70 year-old from Sheffield is the first swing coach McIlroy has taken on in an official capacity in over two decades.

It follows a fairly remarkable recent admission: that McIlroy had been "sucked in" by Bryson DeChambeau's quest for extra distance, convincing him of the need for extra speed training to squeeze a few more yards out of his driver.

The side-effect was McIlroy's swing becoming "flat, long, and too rotational".

"When I see players going through a wholesale swing change, I worry for them," Cowen wrote in that same Golf Digest piece.

"When it comes to the golf swing, improvement is good, change is bad."

Cowen currently works with another four-time Major champion who has lost his way of late in Brooks Koepka. He has coached Henrik Stenson, Darren Clarke, Louis Oosthuizen, Graeme McDowell, Danny Willett and Henrik Stenson to Major wins.

But he won't have had anywhere near the richness of material with which to work as he does now with McIlroy.

The lure of extra distance is a curious trap for McIlroy to have fallen into.

He averages 319 yards off the tee, third longest on the PGA Tour. In driving accuracy, however, he ranks 148th, hitting his target from just 57% of tee shots - 286 fairways from 500 drives.

If that seems a more obvious area to address, consider this: in 2014 when he won two Majors, McIlroy finished 108th in the same category, finding the short grass 59% of the time. And for all his waywardness, McIlroy is currently third on tour in the category strokes gained from the tee.

As a general rule, the closer he moves to the green, the further McIlroy drifts. Not just from the Tour's form players, but his own best work.

He sits 157th in proximity to the hole from his approach shots, with an average leave of 38 feet.

From between 75 and 100 yards, McIlroy is 198th on the PGA Tour, leaving an average putt of 23 feet from that range.

It's worth recalling here that McIlroy was ranked the world's number one player as recently as last June. And that having struggled with the atmosphere vacuum created by empty galleries for the past 12 months, he will welcome the return of Augusta's 'patrons' this week, albeit in reduced numbers, more than most.

But, as ever, the glare of scrutiny is intense around McIlroy.

His form and his new coach add another subplot to one of the tournament's most compelling recent narratives: whether McIlroy rediscovers the form befitting his miraculous talent to break his own Masters tradition, to become one of golf's grand slammers.

Augusta, in all its lush familiarity, awaits him.


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