AUGUSTA WEAPONS: Length off the tee, towering iron shots
You could probably count the golfers whose games were better-suited to Augusta National than that of Rory McIlroy on the fingers of one hand... well, one and a bit. The first name would of course be Jack Nicklaus, whose length off the tee, high faded irons, exceptional putting, meticulous preparation, and shrewd strategy made him very hard to beat from 1961 to 1981, during which time he won five of his six Green Jackets, had five other top-three finishes, and recorded an incredible 17 top-10s. Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods each won four times and among those with three or two victories perhaps Phil Mickelson, Seve Ballesteros and Ben Hogan could rightfully have expected more. But with his own booming tee shots and beautifully-flighted irons, might McIlroy not also be considered perfectly-built for Alister MacKenzie's 1933 Masterpiece?
One man who certainly thinks so is noted author, Golf Channel analyst, and Sirius XM satellite radio show host John Feinstein. "Rory absolutely has the swing and the game to win at Augusta," he says. "Look at what he did for three rounds in 2011. Lefties who can fade the ball are the hot topic at Augusta these days thanks to Bubba Watson, but historically righties who could draw it have done very well. Rory fits that description."
The problem, of course, is the Northern Irishman's often suspect putting. "Nicklaus, Palmer, Woods, Ballesteros and the others were all great on the greens," says Feinstein. "Rory isn't... yet. He's a very streaky putter."
He's only played two events on the 2015/16 PGA Tour, but McIlroy is ranked 204th in Strokes Gained: Putting, which compares a player's performance on the greens with that of the rest of the field each week, and cumulatively over the season. Had his figures counted for last year (he didn't play enough rounds), he would have finished the season 126th in putting. In 2014, he was 41st, in 2013 he was 117th. And he was 82nd four years ago. In Europe, McIlroy ranked 132nd on Tour in Putts Per Round last year. These are not the numbers of someone looking to dominate major championships.
"Rory will win the Masters when (a) he gets the putter hot for four days, or (b) he becomes a more consistent putter," says Feinstein. "That could happen at any time."
This, however, assumes there is no lingering scar tissue from the meltdown in 2011 when he went from the top of the leaderboard to a tie for 15th in the space of nine disastrous, ugly, nightmare holes. Yes, McIlroy has won four majors since that miserable day, including the very next major – the 2011 US Open at Congressional – but he's still not won at Augusta. One wonders what will go through his head should he stand on the 10th tee with a one-shot lead and Jordan Spieth and Jason Day breathing down his neck.
Chances are McIlroy's numerous successes elsewhere would guide him home. It could very well happen this year, in fact. But Feinstein fancies McIlroy's chances at Royal Troon instead. "Especially if the wind blows the way it normally does - front nine downwind, back nine into the wind," he says. "I know he has said that he's not a fan of typical links conditions, but his length should give him a considerable advantage on the incoming holes. And the slower greens there could really help him."