McIlroy: Rory goes for glory

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Rory McIlroy will tee it up at the Masters looking to secure a third major victory in a row and the Career Grand Slam. The hype has been incredible – and Jock Howard believes the 25-year-old is ready to become a legend.

The term ‘legend’ is too easily handed out these days. But Rory McIlroy would be deserving of such a title if he secures a Green Jacket in Georgia this April and becomes only the sixth man in Masters era history to achieve the Career Grand Slam, at the tender age of 25.

There’s always great expectation for the first major of the year, but Rory’s position on the brink of history and his irresistible recent form have created the biggest buildup since Tiger Woods completed the Tiger Slam at the 2001 Masters. McIlroy’s first tee shot on Thursday, April 9 will release eight months of anticipation. Ever since the Northern Irishman added the Claret Jug to his ever-expanding trophy cabinet on July 20, the Career Grand Slam has been on his mind. The day before, sitting on a six-shot lead with one round to play, a Liverpool Echo writer asked him what it would mean to him, if by tomorrow he had secured three legs of the Career Grand Slam? “It would mean a lot of hype going into Augusta next year!” was Rory’s reply, and it brought the house down.

He was right! The hype going into the 79th Masters is reaching bursting point. Should Rory win a Green Jacket in a few weeks he will be the second youngest to achieve the Career Slam – six months younger than Jack Nicklaus and six months older than Woods. In the modern era, he will also become only the third player to win three consecutive majors. He’s a red-hot favourite to do exactly that – as short as 3/1 with some bookmakers. Those are Tiger at the height of his prime odds. When you look at his form over the last 12 months and what a great fit his game is for Augusta, it’s hard to argue with them.

McIlroy stepped up a gear last summer and took the world of golf by the scruff of the neck by winning the final two majors of the season. Since then, he’s looked unstoppable. He comfortably topped the PGA and European Tour money lists and his lead over Henrik Stenson and Bubba Watson at the top of the world rankings is massive. His last seven finishes on the European Tour have been 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1. That’s binary golf. In living memory, only Hogan, Nicklaus and Tiger have managed to reach such incredible levels of consistency. And Rory is taking this form to a layout he loves; a course many believe is better suited to his game than any other on the planet; and a course where, aged 21, he led the field by four strokes with one round to play.

“I’m going in to Augusta with a lot of expectation and a lot of hype; and I need to handle these well,” McIlroy acknowledges. “I’ve always been comfortable from tee to green there. It’s just taken me a few years to figure out the greens, and figure out where you need to miss it. I’ve now learnt some different little shots that I might need that week. What really helped me last year was playing with Jeff Knox in the third round. He was my amateur marker, and he’s the best I’ve ever seen on Augusta’s greens. I might have to take a couple of trips up there before the tournament in order to have a couple of practice rounds with him.”

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Knox, who holds the course record from the members tees (61) and shot a 70 last year on Masters Saturday (alongside Rory’s 71) has already received a letter from McIlroy, and they are expected to tee it up together the week before the tournament. Rory’s ability to recover from his 2011 Augusta meltdown, and win his maiden major title at the very next opportunity (by eight shots!) shouldn’t be underestimated. After a traumatic incident like that, less resilient players have disappeared into the ether, forever. Rory was smiling within hours of his final round 80, was able to talk it through honestly afterwards, and very soon had everything in perspective. More importantly, he left Augusta saying he had learnt a lot; and then proved it, some eight weeks later.

In golf, as in life, you either learn from misfortune, or it overwhelms you. Rory is very much in the former camp, and that’s one of the big reasons why he has played himself into this position just four years later. It’s still early days, of course, and if Rory truly wants to step from his Nike Lunars into Tiger’s Nike TWs, then he needs to keep this consistency going for years, rather than months. But now he is able to see beyond the Horizon fiasco, there is precious little evidence to suggest he won’t be able to do just that.

“Every week I come to win,” he says. “I feel I can keep this run of form going, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t. I’m comfortable with my game. I’m happy with how I’m swinging it, and it’s just a matter of keeping on top of things and not getting complacent.”

Asked after his latest victory in Dubai in February (his 17th as a professional), what sort of message he was sending to his competitors; he thought for a bit, and then smiled. “I guess that I come to win every week. It’s not like I’m trying to send any messages, to be honest, but I guess if they’re going to beat me, they’re going to have to play well. If I turn up with the game I know I have, I should give myself a decent chance of winning. Confidence and momentum are on my side.” 

So, how has he moved up a gear over the past 18 months, overcoming his annus horribilis of 2013, to become consistently brilliant? Certainly, the fact that his personal life is back on track and out of the tabloids seems to be helping. His dramatic split with Caroline Wozniacki brought immediate calm to Rory on the golf course, with a victory in the BMW PGA Championship coming within days.

Ever since the break-up, golf has been back at the top of Rory’s list of priorities. “I’ve realised we only have one go at this,” he says. “I’ve refocused and rededicated myself, and this is very important to me. This is my career, and I want to make the most of it.”

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He’s rededicated himself to the gym, embracing fitness practices with Tiger-like intensity. His swing is a lot more balanced and stable than it was even 18 months ago, and a lot of that has to do with his core stability. Rory first started working on fitness with Steve McGregor in late 2010. Before which – although he was very flexible – there was a tiny paunch and jiggle. They initially focused on correcting the discrepancies between Rory’s strong right side and his weak left; and so did lots of single arm and single leg work-outs.

Since last May, however, Rory has put on a lot of muscle from his knees up and through his core. He may still weigh 160lb or 73kg (the same weight he was when he turned pro), but his body fat has reduced significantly in the last year, from 22% to 16%.

“The lower body work has stabilised all the power that I had generated on the way down,” he told Men’s Health recently “Before, I could generate the power, but I needed the stability in order to hold onto it. I feel a lot more stable in my swing. There’s a lot less moving parts.” Rory’s nickname on Tour has even changed from ‘Wee Mac’ to ‘BMW’. “He’s the ‘ultimate driving machine’,” explains Graeme McDowell. He can overpower courses like Tiger used to; hitting wedges where most are hitting mid-irons. At last summer’s Scottish Open he hit a drive 436 yards.

Last year, Rory was third in the Driving Distance statistic (310.5 yards) on the PGA Tour, behind only Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson. Tiger may not have been the first to show how putting on muscle can improve your golf, but he was the most dramatic; and Rory has learnt from and copied him. “Rory may well now be the best driver of the ball we have ever seen in golf,” says his Ryder Cup captain from Gleneagles, Paul McGinley. “That’s helped him hugely improve his consistency week in, week out. But there are other ways he has evolved as both a player and a person in recent months.

“The way he became so much part of the team at Gleneagles, enjoying his teammates company, made him stand out as being very special. That quality is unique in one so gifted. And his honesty in interviews is hugely refreshing.” Another factor in Rory’s transformation is the aura when his name goes up on a leaderboard – just as there used to be in Tiger’s prime. Players do strange things when they are paired with Rory now, especially in the final group on Sundays.  In the final round of the Dubai Desert Classic, for instance, his closest rival, Morten Orum Madsen, took a triple-bogey seven at the first hole. Talk about not putting pressure on your opponent! The Swede, Alex Noren (who eventually finished runner-up to McIlroy in Dubai) said: “I never even thought about winning. Rory’s just playing too good.” That may be the case, Alex, but it makes Rory’s job a whole lot easier if all of his adversaries are thinking like you!

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“It’s always a good thing when other players are talking about you,” says Rory. “Every week I want to be the guy to beat. The way to do that, and to have that so-called aura, is to play well consistently. That’s what I’ve been doing recently. The goal is to get into contention as many times as possible, test your game in the heat of battle and see where that puts you come the end.”  

“Am I at the peak of my powers? I’d like to think that I could still get better. I’d like to think that I can still improve in certain areas. But right now, I’m happy with where my game is. I feel like each week I turn up, I have a chance to win.”

When Rory turns up at Augusta, he won’t just have a chance to win, he’ll have a chance to make history and guarantee his legendary status in the game alongside the likes of Nicklaus, Woods, and Hogan. No wonder he’s feeling pumped up.

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