History is batting its eyelids at Rory McIlroy, who arrived at Augusta National this week as well-prepared as he has ever been on the eve of the first major championship of the golf season. He is striking the ball like Hogan (it was ever thus) and he is putting like God (it was never thus). His best mate Harry Diamond is on caddying duties and his psyche appears to be in the best shape it has been for a very long time.
“I just need to let my subconscious to take over,’’ the Irishman said when asked to identify the key to victory come Sunday afternoon.
That’s easy for McIlroy to say but the subconscious mind is a tricky proposition, especially around a manicured torture chamber like the Augusta National layout. This place is to the human psyche what Donald Trump is to the hopes and dreams of all mankind. Terrifying.
McIlroy knows this better than anyone, having endured a very public meltdown on the Sunday of the 2011 Masters. He began that day with a four-shot lead over the field and ended it by falling into the arms of his waiting parents, wailing like the little kid they nurtured towards his magnificent career in golf.
Diamond was there that day, standing helplessly out the ropes as his mate fell to pieces in front of the Augusta galleries and the global TV audience. Now that Harry – a fine golfer in his own right, by the way – is inside the ropes, it is hard to make the case that he will find himself standing next to a more talented golfer than the one who lost that day.
The McIlroy of 2011 was a hell of a player, as he proved a few short weeks after that Masters collapse by winning the US Open at Congressional by eight shots. He ascended to the top of the world rankings for the first time in the spring of 2012 and won his second major title later that summer, the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, again by eight shots.
McIlroy will have to go some to better the kind of golf he played in winning those first two majors. Still, he looked near his best when winning a Bay Hill last month, shooting a 31 on the Sunday’s back nine to see off a strong chasing pack.
If that Rory turns up this week at Augusta then the rest of the pack had better beware. But will that Rory turn up?
As ever, he has talked a good game, pointing up that he has never played so many practice rounds at Augusta National in preparation for the Masters. He also touched base last week with former PGA Tour pro Brad Faxon, whom he credits with restoring a putting touch that seemed lost for the best part of a season. Unlike his last two Masters visits, when his bid to secure a career Grand Slam was the main talking point of the tournament prelude, he arrives this week as a bit part player in the Tiger Woods Revival Show. That can only help, however much McIlroy himself denies it.
Add all of that together, plus the fact that McIlroy’s brand of golf – high ball flight, with a touch of draw – is perfect for Augusta National, and you don’t need the man from NASA to tell you that the stars are aligned.
And yet. And yet….when we talk about the career Grand Slam we are dealing with golf history, and not in the footnotes department. We are talking top of the page, chapter one. Only five men have ever achieved the Grand Slam and all of them will live forever in golf folklore. It does not come easy, which is why the likes of Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson came up just short.
No-one considers those three giants to be in a failure in any way, yet they will have felt the pain of coming up just that little bit short of golfing immortality. They will have known better than anyone the kind of pressure that is applied in the search for that ultimate prize.
McIlroy has now experienced the same pressure and its effects have been obvious for anyone who cared to look over at his last two Masters appearances. It was there in uncharacteristically cautious approach he took to the golf course, and in the carelessness that blemished his scorecards like black fairy dust. Bogies are manageable around Augusta National but McIlroy’s penchant for destructive double bogeys has been his undoing.
It goes without saying that he needs to cut out such blemishes. They may be forgivable in a headstrong young man but they are unbecoming of a man possessed of McIlroy’s talent and experience. If he can do that, he has a chance. If he can play anywhere in the vicinity of his best golf, he has a very good chance. If he can somehow ignore that weight of history and expectation, then he will step his way on to the pantheon. Rory McIlroy, career Grand Slam winner, has a ring to it. Like church bells on a Sunday afternoon in Georgia.