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McIlroy hoping he can become a Major player again under Cowen's tutelage, starting with Masters drive

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Rory McIlroy shares a joke with Peter Cowen during the 2014 Ryder Cup.

Rory McIlroy shares a joke with Peter Cowen during the 2014 Ryder Cup.

AFP via Getty Images

Rory McIlroy shares a joke with Peter Cowen during the 2014 Ryder Cup.

Rory McIlroy has the talent to turn things around and win The Masters but time is his big enemy as he bids to become just the sixth man to complete the career Grand Slam.

The Holywood star is regarded by his new swing consultant Pete Cowen as "a genius" in the same mould as Seve Ballesteros or Tiger Woods, but even the English coaching guru has privately told those close to him not to expect miracles as he takes on the greatest natural talent in the game.

Few doubt that McIlroy has the technical tools to produce the ball control required to triumph at the Cathedral of Pines. But it's between the ears that he faces his biggest challenge, 10 years after he closed with that nightmare 80 and Charl Schwartzel claimed the coveted Green Jacket.

In 2018 he went into the final round three shots adrift of Patrick Reed after a stunning third-round 65 but the pressure to claim the Major he covets above all others and needs to complete the set of all four Grand Slam titles proved too much and he finished dead last for strokes gained putting and slumped to a closing 74 to finish fifth, six shots behind Captain America.

Renowned golf psychologist Dr Gio Valiante, the mental coach who helped Justin Rose win the US Open in 2013, believes McIlroy's mental game remains his biggest obstacle to achieving his golfing Holy Grail.

"Augusta National can punish if you play too aggressively," Valiante said in the aftermath of that 2018 disappointment. "So until he starts to play more maturely - until Rory McIlroy learns how to play more patient and tactical golf - I don't see him winning at Augusta."

McIlroy has since improved his putting, but he remains winless since November 2019 having suffered a string of Sunday disappointments in regular PGA Tour events.

Given his talents, it will be fascinating to see if Cowen has had enough time over the past week to bring about a mental change in the Co Down man, who could never be accused of lacking courage given his immense achievements.

While he is renowned as a technical coach and a brilliant teacher of the short game, it's his ability to get into the heads of his pupils that has made Cowen one of the most sought after coaches in the game.

He helped Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke become world-class winners and rescued Henrik Stenson from golfing hell. But in more recent times it has been his ability to change the attitude of four-time Major champion Brooks Koepka that stands out.

"It's attitude," Cowen says of the key to success at the highest level. "You've got to have the right attitude and that's always going to be the No.1 priority. Having an attitude that you actually understand that your talent can't come through with a poor attitude. You can have the best swing in the world and a poor attitude will destroy it. You can have the worst swing in the world and a good attitude and still make good money.

"The technical stuff is easy. I said it to Henrik. I said, 'Henrik, if you'd listened to me 100% and done what I've asked 100%, you'd have been the best player in the world for 10 years. But you listened to 25%, got to No.2 and had an unbelievable career. And that's having probably only listened to me for 25% of the time'."

World No.1 Dustin Johnson, the defending champion, remains the bookies' favourite, with big-hitting Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas and the resurgent Jordan Spieth all rated a better bet than McIlroy to pull on the Green Jacket next Sunday.

Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee is one of McIlroy's biggest supporters. But even the Texan wonders if the pride of Holywood can rebuild his confidence in time to improve on a Masters record where his best finish is fourth place in 2015, six strokes behind the ultra-talented Spieth.

With firm and fast conditions expected, there will be more emphasis than ever on brilliant approach play, and McIlroy is 81st for strokes gained approach this year compared to Collin Morikawa (1st), Thomas (3rd), Tyrrell Hatton (8th), Johnson (9th), Rahm (12th) and DeChambeau (14th).

"And the firmer it plays, the more it's sort of imperative to control your landings with angles," Chamblee said. "I would look at Justin Thomas for sure, but certainly Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau. And beyond that I'd go to those players - if it's playing firm, obviously what a player does tee to green is important, but around the green is hugely important. So I look to the most well-rounded players, and that's Patrick Cantlay. He's certainly in that group."

As for McIlroy, he's merely curious to see which version of the Holywood star turns up.

"I hope Rory McIlroy finds something with Pete Cowen. I hope he's able to show up with some sort of semblance of form, that he'll have an 'aha' moment sometime between the last time he played at the Match Play and we see him at Augusta," Chamblee said.

"I think one of the most exciting things going into this Masters really for me is to see what Pete Cowen and Rory McIlroy are capable of doing when they're home for a week and they have time to work. If you're arguably looking at the most talented golfer in the world and you're already talking about arguably the most talented teacher - I'm curious what those two could do.

"I don't think it's going to take the two-year incubation period that Nick Faldo took or Tiger Woods took, or at least I don't think it should have to. I think teaching has improved since those two-year incubation points, as the ability to measure golf swings with more accuracy, because of the devices they use teaching has improved. So I'm really curious what Rory McIlroy shows up at Augusta National."

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