Sir Nick Faldo last week revealed that when putting the Green Jacket on his successor as the Masters champion 20 years ago, he whispered into the victor’s ear, “just a bit of advice – red shirts don’t go with green”. Yet for the seven-year-old watching in Belfast, and for so many other boys and girls around the world, Tiger Woods and Augusta were the perfect match.
And, in their dreams, always would be.
In fact, Rory McIlroy believes that watershed win – when that fearless 21-year-old overcame so many more obstacles than merely Augusta National’s notorious pitfalls – is the reason why the 81st version of the season’s first major is lining up to be a classic, with a huge cast list all chasing their different storylines. McIlroy is sure that this script would have so fewer dimensions without that stimulus.
“That week was why you see the fields in tournaments so deep as they are today,” McIlroy said. “Tiger’s win inspired so many kids to go out and play the game and it’s why there is so much parity in professional golf right now. That’s Tiger’s legacy and it all started that week. You see it everywhere in the game; everyone is just so much more professional. And every child with hopes of being a professional golfer wanted to be Tiger Woods after that day.”
Well, not exactly. Not as far as McIlroy was concerned. He was not even old enough to join his local golf club at the time, but he had fostered a Tiger fixation even before that legendary 12-shot saunter. It was why Gerry McIlroy was rather generous in amending his lights-out policy for the night of Sunday, April 13, 1997.
“Yeah, I was already a big Tiger fan, by then,” McIlroy said. “I’d watched him win his three US Amateurs on TV and yes, I would already have had a Tiger head cover in my bag. Tiger was my idol and I remember it all vividly, the build-up and the early rounds, and thinking ‘oh no, he’s messed up the front nine’ (when Woods struggled to the turn in 40) and then him pulling effortlessly away.
“It really is very clear in my memory, especially the last round, which I could go through shot by shot now if I have to. The next morning, all I wanted to do was to hit balls and try to be my hero.”
A little more than 18 months later and the connection felt more real than ever before. It was the Junior World Championships at Doral in Miami where McIlroy prevails in the nine-to-10 age bracket. “It was my first amateur event of note and I recall walking down the 18th at the Blue Monster thinking ‘wow, Tiger has competed here’,” McIlroy said. “It was a special moment for me. I was only young, but I felt I was on the road.”
Nobody can suggest he did not make spectacular progress up that highway, in his mission to emulate his inspiration. Indeed, none of Tiger’s golden cubs has yet to make anything like a more convincing job of the most difficult impression in golf. But, of course, the glaring exception is the very tournament which provided the rich motivation. Augusta is the utopia McIlroy has still to colonise.
Not only does the myth of Woods wait for him in that Butler Cabin, but so too do those of Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, the only other players to win all four of the majors.
When this prospect of immortality is considered, and when the realisation that it has to be earned in his childhood fantasyland is also taken into account, then is it any wonder that he confesses to getting worked up in the build-up?
Throw in his 2011 meltdown there – when he conceded a four-shot advantage with that infamous 80 – and the fact that there happens to be an unhelpful eight-month stewing period between the USPGA and the Masters, then is it any surprise that the seven days before is the one week of the year when he changes from laid-back Rory to highly strung Rory?
“No, I am probably not much fun to be around as Augusta approaches, but I’ve never made any bones about Augusta being the biggest tournament of the year for me,” he said. “There’s joining the five guys with the career grand slam and all of that, but there’s just being the Masters champion and the green jacket and getting to go in the Champions Locker Room, to the Champions’ Dinner and knowing you’ll always be a part of the place. That’s a big deal when you think back to watching it in wonder as a kid, as I did.
“You don’t have only to beat all the other players there, but do it knowing that victory comes with all this cool stuff. That’s the mental challenge.”
McIlroy has racked up three top-10 finishes in his last three years and believes he has the game to come through at Augusta. Certain critics, such as Colin Montgomerie, wonder if his putting and scrambling powers are the weakness which could hold him back. But since linking up with the Southport putting guru Phil Kenyon last August, there can be no doubt that his form on the greens has improved.
Peer closer in and it is clear that anxiety, or more to the point coping with it, will be the key. And it is best explained by McIlroy’s propensity for mini-disasters among the azaleas and dogwoods.
Since 2010, nobody aged under 50 has made more than McIlroy’s 14 double-bogeys or worse and when this is put alongside the statistic which says that 17 of the past 20 Masters winners have managed to keep double-bogey off their four scorecards and that the other three only recorded one of the tournament-wrecking blighters, then it is obvious what needs fixing from McIlroy’s standpoint.
“Yeah, and that’s a mental thing, cutting out those silly errors which are so costly at Augusta,” he said. “Maybe it’s because I’ve been too tentative there and shown the place too much respect. Maybe I have to be more aggressive and go in with the attitude that I have to get something that I should have had a long time ago.”
Namely, that green jacket which appeared so magically on that flickering screen 20 years ago. With Woods sadly absent, there truly would no more appropriate champion for the anniversary.