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Masters crowds flock to see Rory McIlroy as Watson rolls back the years for par three triumph

By Adam McKendry

It was somewhat ironic that this year's Par 3 contest represented the calm before and after the storm.

Figuratively, it allowed the players a chance to play one final abbreviated round before things got serious, with wives caddying for their hubbies, children running amok and the icons like Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player rolling back the years.

It began after a deluge of rain yesterday morning.

Indeed, while Nicklaus himself turned back the clock, it was his grandson, and caddy for the day, Gary who stole all the headlines when he stepped up on the ninth tee, as is allowed, and promptly holed his shot.

It's what the Par 3 Contest does - it's a release from all the tension of one of the biggest golfing weeks on the calendar, where players can have a laugh and enjoy the company they most enjoy and value.

And while the biggest cheers of the afternoon were reserved for Tony Finau and Dylan Frittelli, who aced the seventh and eighth holes respectively, the biggest crowds followed Rory McIlroy.

It's hard to sum up why the Holywood man is so revered here. He's not far and away the biggest name in the field, as he sometimes is, and he's not a hometown hero either.

Perhaps he's garnered some form of sympathy for that 2011 heartbreak? Or is it the possibility of the blockbuster headline he could create on Sunday by winning the Grand Slam?

He does have the backing of Nicklaus though, who commented: "Rory is really swinging well, the best I've ever seen him swing. He obviously putted very well at Bay Hill so he's going to be tough to beat.

"If you picked anybody he'd be the number one to pick and rightly so. He's probably playing better than anyone else."

On Tuesday night, McIlroy was joined by Branden Grace and Ian Woosnam for a few holes on the back nine and the trio had crowds four deep following them around. The same was true when he took to the front nine yesterday morning with Jon Rahm.

With wife Erica on the bag, he then took to the par 3 course wedged into the northeast corner of the club grounds, where standing room, so plentiful for all other groups, was limited to the degree that you had to pick and choose holes to get a good vantage point

Every tee shot was cheered, every putt willed to the hole.

If McIlroy himself wasn't invested - as very few were in yesterday's opener - then the crowd more than made up for it.

That's the kind of draw this man is, even outside of Europe, and the throngs of people passing through the gates for the next four days will be carefully scanning the list of tee times to see when McIlroy is passing through.

He's not a Masters champion yet, but he's treated like one. And perhaps the reason is because he himself reciprocates that love.

"It's just the perfect golf tournament," the World No.7 enthused. "Everything's just run so well, everything's done the right way and it's a privilege to play in front of the patrons."

It's the kind of thing very few other players can command, a certain Tiger Woods being the obvious exception, and it's the kind of thing that can will a player on to be just that little bit better when the going gets tough.

And McIlroy feeds off that. Since that disastrous Sunday seven years ago, he's had four top 10 finishes and last year, despite flying a little under the radar, he was still in contention on the final day, eventually finishing in a tie for seventh place.

The Augusta patrons are a knowledgeable crowd - again something McIlroy has openly admired - they're respectful of the game, but at the same time passionate for the sport.

Yesterday they came out in their droves for a competition that had little relevance and, while the biggest crowds on the par 3 course were following McIlroy, there was no doubt who was accorded the biggest welcome.

Nicklaus, Player and Watson - the eventual winner - were roared onto the first tee so loudly it could be heard across the course, an iconic trio that could only be made more prolific if the esteemed Arnold Palmer was still with us.

Today, Rory McIlroy begins the bid to join them, and there aren't too many betting against him.

Belfast Telegraph

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