Eighty-some other players are ignoring the press clippings and the twin covers of Sports Illustrated and believe that the green jacket hasn’t been won just yet. The most intriguing character in the counter debate is the one Woods just stole back the No. 1 crown from – Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy is competing in Texas this week – a last-minute therapy session for a player who as of a week ago seemed utterly unprepared to win the Masters this year. The young Northern Irishman had completed only two previous tournaments all season before climbing into contention at this week’s Texas Open.
Some are convinced that whatever swing issues and confidence blocks McIlroy was suffering from since he made a high-profile equipment change this off-season will magically evaporate once he shows up at Augusta National.
“When Augusta rolls around, he’ll be fine,” said six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus at the very low point of McIlroy’s 2013 season, when he walked off the course mid-round at PGA National.
His performance in Texas thus far would support Nicklaus’ confidence in McIlroy’s talent trumping all. But even if McIlroy wins this week on an exacting course in San Antonio and starts breathing down Woods’ neck to regain the No. 1 position, is it that simple?
Is McIlroy back? Will it be a Rory vs. Tiger rivalry at the Masters?
McIlroy has more demons to deal with than a few months of bad swing thoughts when he shows up in Augusta. For all of his gifts and his obvious ability to play well on the golf course, Augusta National hasn’t exactly been kind to him the four years he’s played there.
As a rookie in 2009, McIlroy had to get called into the principal’s office to explain a rather gruff “smoothing” of the sand with his feet after leaving a shot in the bunker on the 18th. The young player had just dropped five strokes to par on the last three holes to make the cut on the number – tripling 18.
After missing the cut in 2010, McIlroy was leading the field entering the back nine on Sunday in 2011 before famously melting down after hitting a drive on the 10th hole in between cabins that nobody other than club members previously knew existed. He was last seen bent over his driver on the 13th tee as he went through the final motions of an 80.
Then last year, McIlroy was sitting in fourth entering the weekend only to shoot a pair of 77s.
So can one good week at the TPC San Antonio erase all that from his head when he shows up at the first tee on Thursday?
McIlroy is tied for fourth entering the final round in Texas, which is obviously what he hoped to see when he canceled a humanitarian trip to Haiti for the 11th-hour refresher.
“I just felt like I needed a bit more competitive golf heading into the Masters,” he said.
McIlroy says he’s not obsessing about his mostly poor start leading up to April. He went through a similar malaise starting at Augusta last year and running much of the summer until he romped at the PGA Championship.
Turns out McIlroy might be a lot more like Phil Mickelson than Woods – less consistent but always capable of hitting the high notes.
“I don’t care if I miss 10 cuts in a row if I win a major a year,” he said. “I don’t care. I mean, that’s what it’s all about is winning the big tournaments. Of course, it’s not going to be great for your confidence going into those majors if you’re missing 10 cuts in a row.
“People remember the wins. They don’t remember that I shot 65 at Doral to finish eighth. I mean, people don’t remember that stuff, but they remember the wins and they remember the high points. It’s only a minority that will remember the low points and will get on you for that.”
When he gets to Augusta on Monday, it will serve McIlroy well to follow his own advice and forget the low points.
Maybe San Antonio will prove to be a turning point.
“I’d love to leave here on Sunday night with the trophy and have that before heading to Augusta next week,” he said.
It will certainly quiet any critics, but he still has a lot to prove once he gets here.