If the Masters is indeed golf’s great cathedral then Rory McIlroy has walked bravely into its confession box. “I’m a complete p---- in the week leading up to Augusta,” he said.
One might suspect that this should be one of the happiest weeks of his life, what with his wedding to Erica Stoll looming later this month. Yet at the moment, he simply cannot relax. And the reason why should have been clear, even to us amateur psychoanalysts. Yet he has delivered it anyway in revealing the first word he thinks of whenever Augusta is mentioned. “Stress,” McIlroy replied.
At 27 years of age, McIlroy is the only European ever to have won three different majors. At 27, McIlroy is the only golfer from anywhere to have won three different majors in the last 40 years, other than Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson.
At 27, McIlroy cannot forget what happened to him at Augusta when he was 21. He led by four shots going into the final round and everyone expected him to win his first major. McIlroy shot 80.
Since then, the pressure has built incrementally, as every trinket around the neck has only increased the burden. “Great playing to win the US Open/Open/USPGA/Ryder Cup, Rory, but when are you going to win the Masters?” And what has made it yet more arduous to shoulder, has been his long-stated acknowledgement that Augusta was the scene of glory in his childhood dreams. That is because of 1997 and the milestone victory of his inspiration and now friend, Tiger Woods.
“It really is very clear in my memory, especially the last round, which I could go through shot by shot now if I had to,” McIlroy told Telegraph Sport. “The next morning, all I wanted to do was to hit balls and try to be my hero.”
McIlroy still craves to emulate Woods, but now there is an entire mountain of motivation. The career grand slam beckons and the right to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and, of course, Woods in the pantheon.
In the Ulsterman’s mind, these legends will all be ganging up on him, together with that ambition which has burned within since toddler status. For seven days only, this all conspires to turns Tiger’s golden cub into the grouchy bear he is most definitely not.
“No, I am probably not much fun to be around, but they [his friends and family] understand and know that. It’s a stressful situation,” he said.
If Georgia is forever at the back of his mind then this revered layout is plainly under his skin. There have been chances since 2011, but chances he has blown asunder into the azaleas.
A 77 when he finished eighth in 2014; a fifth in 2015 when he conceded seven shots to Jordan Spieth after a first round 71; and perhaps, most painfully, last year, he was only one behind leader Spieth and in the final group with him, and shot another Masters-wrecking 77. “It’s always something,” McIlroy said.
The point is that like all the most captivating romantic tragedies, McIlroy loves Augusta, but hates what it does to him. He is determined not let it seduce him and ultimately spit him out and apart from that most natural of desires for a son to play with his father in golf’s most cherished playground, that is why he returns here whenever he can.
McIlroy made the latest off-Masters visit with Gerry last month, along with two businessmen from Seminole - another ultra-exclusive club situated near his Florida home - and although his companions must have believed the sporting genius among them was here for the giggles and kicks as well as a reconnaissance mission, he was, in fact, here for the subtle slaying of ghosts.
“The more comfortable you can feel around Augusta the better,” McIlroy told Golf Digest. “For me, that’s what it’s all about. Going up for trips with Dad and friends and just messing around. That makes it feel way easier for me because I always associate Augusta with stressful situations and shots.
“If you can get up there and make it feel as if you’re just playing another round of golf at another golf course…well. Like I was playing and I’m just messing around playing different shots and thinking ‘why can’t I do this during the Masters?”
No doubt, McIlroy can do it, but everything in his major odyssey suggests he must do it from the first round and dominate thereafter and although the pre-tournament rains, which will soften Augusta, will surely play to his strengths, his task has been made more complicated by a few other factors.
McIlroy likes to storm our early and stamp his indelible and irresistible mark, but he has been “drawn” alongside Japan’s Hideto Taniwara and the brilliant young Spaniard Jon Rahm, in the third-last, prime-time US TV, starting spot of 1.41pm. By then, he will be on the Benadryl scale of itching to get out there.
And there are winds forecasted, with gusts of 25mph predicted in the late afternoon. The theory is doubtlessly overstated, but one of McIlroy’s many paradoxes is that a boy from the links-filled terrain of Northern Ireland is not at his best when his curls are ruffling.
Yet he does seem to flourish when his back is against the wall and that certainly has been the case this year after daring to play a round of golf with President Trump in February. He admitted on Tuesday he could do otherwise given the choice again. “Would I do it again?,” he said. “I might think twice now after the backlash I received.”
It is his own backlash which concerns him most, however. He wants that green jacket; he could even claim to need it. His loved ones would also welcome it. Especially in that week leading up to Augusta.