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Masters 2015: Augusta will find out if Rory McIlroy can be grand master

By Kevin Garside

The symbolism was unmistakable. Off the 10th went Ben Crenshaw and Tiger Woods, off the first, barely a dozen strides away, Rory McIlroy and Florida breezeblock Brooks Koepka, the future heading one way, the past another.

Veteran Crenshaw, a two-time winner making his final appearance at the Masters, and Woods, 102-years-old combined, were also joined by the face of American youth, 21-year-old Jordan Spieth, but only out of a sense of duty to Crenshaw, who played a key role in bringing him to the start of what promises to be a prolific career.

If Spieth was paying his respects, so too was Woods, one great champion sending off another over a social nine holes before taking on the par-3 challenge in the afternoon with the kids.

No such consideration for McIlroy, no Sound of Music reprise for him, no traipsing through the bucolic glades, children in tow - and skier Lyndsey Vonn (Trapp) in the Julie Andrews slot.

The return of Woods has thrown a huge Tiger blanket over this event, almost squeezing McIlroy's quest to join him as a Major slammer into the margins.

There are some in this neighbourhood who claim Woods' round in the penultimate tee slot of the day is the most anticipated in the history of golf.

Anchored to the mystique that surrounds the tournament and Woods' unique contribution to it, the glass half full community see Woods rolling back the years, scattering the field with imperious drives and improbable putts to restore the red shirt to its rightful place on Sunday afternoon.

It is a measure of Woods' towering achievements that right thinking folk are persuaded to ignore the evidence of the recent past and invest in the idea that Woods might win. His appearance has thus lit a fire under the 79th Masters.

In contrast, McIlroy has genuine flames to throw. His engagement in the media suite on Tuesday could not have been more mundane, almost dismissive. There was a low-key intolerance of the theme that has followed him around golf since his back-to-back Major romp last summer. Only the sixth player to win all four Majors, blah, blah, blah. Change the record, said the look on his face.

In that sense McIlroy was as pleased as any to see the Woods caravan roll down Magnolia Lane. Suddenly he is free to get on with the job. At opposite ends of the practice range yesterday, McIlroy and Woods went about their warm-up routines. There were others lifting balls into the ether, but few cared for them.

When Woods departed for the putting green by the clubhouse, the gallery in the stand behind quickly quit the scene. McIlroy was not far behind. The practice green abuts both first and 10th tees thrusting the pair into each other's company. Woods loves this dynamic, pinning back his shoulders like a peacock might its feathers.

It is some spectacle watching hundreds of people essentially observing two people in conversation without a hope of hearing what passes between them, a Masters silent movie providing niche entertainment before a tee goes in the ground.

McIlroy has grown into his role as the game's brand leader. Woods is the biggest story in town this week but probably won't be next, a state of affairs reflected in McIlroy's benign commentary, which fell the polite side of superior, patting him on the shoulder and wishing him well. "It would have been a bad thing for the sport if he had not been able to come back, so it's great that he's making his first start back here," McIlroy said.

"Hopefully this is the start of a period where he can play continuously and have a good run, because he's turning 40 this year. He's got maybe a few years left where he can play at the top level and he's going to give it his all."

The mood around McIlroy altered the second he shut the door on his media commitments. He has paced the week perfectly, practicing with amateur champion Bradley Neil on Monday before upgrading to Matt Kuchar late on Tuesday afternoon.

Nostalgia was the dominant emotion ushering Woods and Crenshaw down the 10th. But behind the first tee box, young men craned for a view of the McIlroy hammer, sensing that this was where the real action is. "Watch the ball flight on this," urged one member of the gallery to another. A blow of dense violence sent the ball on its way.

It was the kind of flourish that fitted neatly with the theme of this year's champions' dinner, the one restaurant in the world to which McIlroy is denied entry for now. Those assembled were addressed by the venerable Arnold Palmer, who reminded them how lucky they were to be in each other's company, to have won a Green Jacket.

He encouraged them to enjoy the moment and to urge those young enough to come again in this event to grasp every opportunity.

Palmer is the man to whom golf owes perhaps the greatest debt of gratitude, the game-changer of his day.

Today, despite the attentions of failing joints, he sets the pageant in motion alongside fellow grandees Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in one of the great set pieces in sport. This tournament does a fine job of connecting present with past. What might appear overladen with schmaltz passes for authenticity, so much so that the clubhouse balcony will be packed by ex-players and some in the field, all paying their respects to tradition.

McIlroy is out in the morning alongside Phil Mickelson, hinting at a return to form himself. Woods sets out in the penultimate group of the day with Jamie Donaldson of Wales and Jimmy Walker for company.

By then many of the fancied contenders will have posted a score. Defending champion Bubba Watson, playing with Justin Rose, and Dustin Johnson, partnered by Adam Scott, are yoked by consecutive tee-times.

Spieth, Henrik Stenson and Billy Horschel form one of the afternoon's Hollywood three-balls, perhaps edged in glamour power only by the final group of the day, Sergio Garcia, Rickie Fowler and Jason Day.

Woods aside, there is a powerful case to be made for any of the aforementioned slipping into a Green Jacket on Sunday night. Those backing Woods do so with everything crossed. Rain is promised, playing further into the hands of the long hitters, and softening the ground to a consistency McIlroy has shown to be to his liking.

History tells us it won't be dull, however grey the skies.

Belfast Telegraph


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