He’s better than Tiger Woods was at the same age. He’s the most naturally gifted golfer to come out of Europe since Seve Ballesteros. He’s 19 years old and 15th in the world. It’s fair to say that when Rory McIlroy headed up Magnolia Lane for the first time last week, the optimists were expecting fireworks.
Can this boy stagger the golfing world with a performance in Georgia as dominant as his extraordinary wire-to-wire heroics in Dubai? In all honesty, McIlroy winning the Masters at his first attempt, and as a teenager into the bargain, would be a story generally reserved for Hollywood bids, not Holywood kids.
“I think he’ll be so excited to be at Augusta, that to produce his best will be difficult,” is how his manager Chubby Chandler sees things.
“Augusta has a history of players needing to get to know the course before they can go on to win there. I don’t think he’ll fall flat on his face or miss the cut; I’d say a great week for him would be a top-15 or a top-20 finish.”
Rory raises the bar. “A great week?” he says, “that’d be a top-10 finish.” Safe to say then, that expectations in the McIlroy camp are already quite high. Having made a considered judgement on his prospects, Chandler couldn’t resist this little pay-off... “But he could surprise us. He has the game to surprise us.”
The confidence is high, the swing has been tightened up from the one he arrived with on Tour (see opposite) and the goals that he set himself at the start of the season are already having to be reassessed. “I wanted to try and break into the top 20 in the world this year,” says the game’s new starlet, “I didn’t expect to achieve that by February.”
Of course, how McIlroy performs at Augusta will depend on a number of criteria. His management team at ISM already have plans in place to steer their protégé safely through the natural hazards that may appear off the course. “We can’t manage the expectation of the media because it’s already there, but we can give him the support that he needs at this stage of his career,” says Chandler, who has either been with Rory himself or had one of his staff marshalling him every step of the way since he signed up for them nearly two years ago.
McIlroy hasn’t exactly been surrounded by bodyguards, but there has always been someone in the wings ready to step in and lend a hand. “He prodded me the other day and said, ‘I’m still only a teenager you know’,” says Chandler smiling. “Rory is pretty switched on about these things. He knows that when he’s in America he’ll be quite exposed. And I know that when he asks me if I’m going to be there, that means I make sure I am.
“Gerry [his dad] has been brilliant. He just stays in the background, steps forward when Rory asks for him, and then is happy to disappear again.”
A couple of days after his wire-to-wire one-shot victory at the Dubai Desert Classic, McIlroy returned to Holywood Golf Club. “When I got home late on Monday the fridge was bare, so my girlfriend Holly and I went down to Sainsbury’s,” he said. “People’s heads were turning but it’s nice to be home and get that sort of attention.”
When it comes to the hazards on the course at Augusta, the 19 year old will have a number of Major winners to lean on. In Dubai, Mark O’Meara, Masters champion in 1998, invited him to play a practice round there and even promised that he would get Tiger Woods to join them.
“I talked with Mark about how it has changed a lot since he won there,” McIlroy told Golf World. “I haven’t been thinking too much about the Masters, but now it’ll just be nice to get there and see it for myself. Local knowledge is obviously very important, so Ernie Els has told me I can practise with him as well.
“Everyone’s been saying to me, ‘are you not going to play it before the Masters?’ and I’ve been saying to them that it’s just another golf course and I’m going to try and treat it just like a normal week. But, obviously, Augusta is a bit different. I’m trying not to get ahead of myself because I hopefully still have another 30 Masters to play after this one. I feel good about going there. My confidence is high right now and I know I can compete with the best, but a lot will depend on how I’m feeling that particular week. I’d love to be able to win it one day.”
There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that McIlroy has the long game to do well among the pines of Georgia. He hits it long and is comfortable moving the ball right to left, as you need to do off several tees. On top of that, he has a naturally high ball flight with his irons, which should serve him well.
But it is on the putting surfaces that his fortunes are held in the balance. It is expecting rather a lot for an Augusta novice to feel at home on greens that are as notorious and downright treacherous as these.
“I’m playing at the Shell Houston Open the week before in Texas which is supposed to be set up a little with the Masters in mind, so I’m hoping that will help me adjust.”
McIlroy’s familiarity with Augusta is typical of anyone who has grown up watching it on April evenings at home on the BBC. “I could reel off every hole to you now,” he says. “I’ve watched every one since Faldo beat Norman in ’96. I remember Tiger winning by 12 in ’97, Phil winning with two drivers and Mike Weir in the play-off. The memories go on and on. My parents used to let me stay up late to watch it.”
Chandler is right, McIlroy will be one excited kid when his car turns into Magnolia Lane for the first time. What will he be looking forward to most? Seeing Amen Corner, checking out the champions’ locker room, having breakfast on the clubhouse veranda overlooking the course?
“It’s funny, but I think the thing I’m looking forward to most is seeing the Par 3 course. It’s meant to be set in a huge bowl and it sounds unbelievable. My dad is going to caddie for me there, so he can’t wait either. The practice rounds are going to be very special as well and I think we’re going to arrive in a white Cadillac, I’m looking forward to that. Oh, and playing the 12th hole; what a par 3 that is.”
It’ll be a lot to ask to see Rory McIlroy steal Tiger’s thunder during Masters week, but anyone who saw him win from the front in Dubai could be forgiven for day dreaming of such precocious behaviour.
Chandler has been known to have the odd bet. It would be interesting to know what sort of wager he might risk on his young pretender. “I’ve heard all the hype about him being better than Woods at the same age and that may or may not be the case. All I’ve said to people, right from the start, is that he’s better than anyone thinks he is.
“The other thing I’d say about him is that he makes so many mess-ups every week, but he’s still managed to climb the world rankings. You’ve got to expect him to make mistakes at his age, but he’ll learn from them and you have to be very careful not to meddle too much in that process. You wouldn’t say to him, ‘you need to hit a 3-iron off that tee’ – that’s generally not the way Rory plays. He’s got where he has through his own talent; we just wind him up, point him in the right direction and let him go.”
But you may need to show him where the Butler cabin is, Chubby, just in case he needs to know.
It’s 30 years since Fuzzy Zoeller became the only player to win on his maiden visit to Augusta (not counting the first tournaments in the 1930s). After Zoeller’s success in 1979, there have been 19 winners needing an average of six visits before claiming a Green Jacket:
Masters visits before victory:
3 Langer, Woods, Johnson
4 Watson, Ballesteros, Mize, Woosnam, Weir
6 Faldo, Immelman, Stadler
7 Singh, Lyle
Becoming a winner
On the back of three missed cuts last season, we made some changes to Rory’s swing and from there the whole thing has clicked.
It was around Gleneagles that we started to see the benefits and he played very well there before heading off to Switzerland and almost winning there – losing in a play-off.
The two areas we looked at were his takeaway and his position at the top. I like to see the club kept in front of the body for the first third of the backswing, until it reaches hip height. Rory has tended to get it too much on the inside or deep, as we tend to call it. So, to counter that we’re trying to get the clubface to look at the ball a little longer in the first foot or so of his move away. When the club is at hip height, the clubhead should mirror the spine angle rather than its toe pointing directly up to the sky. This may look a little closed, but it isn’t. When you look from behind the clubhead now covers his hands, which is much better.
The swing has improved a lot, but it’s not perfect; this is still a work in progress. If I had to pick a weakness it would be in the driver.
That’s where he can get a little too long, lose his plane coming down, get trapped on the inside and then either block it right or turn it over too much. He sometimes stands a little open with the driver to give himself more room.
But I think the comment Mark O’Meara made about him being better than Tiger was at the same age, really boosted him. He took that on board and it helped him in the tournament in Dubai. People say that he has a young man’s swing, but he is a young man! I don’t see a problem with that.
There are a couple of other things about Rory’s swing that are interesting. If you watch his left arm, he keeps it very straight, like a ramrod, and he has the most efficient leg propulsion system I’ve ever seen. The leverage he gets is terrific and that is the source of his power.
No gap shows how his right knee has worked towards the left and not out towards the ball.
At the top
To add consistency, Rory has worked to shorten the backswing with the driver “We’ve worked on being a little shorter and more compact at the top,” says Michael Bannon. Rory is incredibly flexible and can turn his shoulders through 110º quite easily. Keeping the swing a touch shorter has helped him with his control.
This interview originally appeared in the April issue of Golf World.