The 2015 Masters is yet to be played but there is little doubt who has won the build up. While Tiger Woods has been off starring in a Shakespearian tragedy of his own making (think Hamlet with a bad case of the chipping yips) and Phil Mickelson has been searching in deepest Texas for a golf game that is recognisably his own, Rory McIlroy has been spilling ink from one end of the superior press to the other.
It’s a long way from Holywood, County Down, to the front page of the New York Times magazine but there he is, young Rory, bold as brass, pictured on the most prestigious piece of real estate the American media has to offer.
Throw in the front cover of Men’s Health magazine – a first for a professional golfer – and, of course, the bible of the sport, Golf Digest. Then there are the newspaper profiles – screeds and screeds of laudatory prose that glimmer and shine like the endless sun, recounting in wondrous tones the many gifts bestowed on a grateful sporting world by the 25-year-old Irishman. By these accounts there is nothing McIlroy cannot do – no barbell he cannot lift, no bank vault he cannot fill, no foe he cannot reduce to a quivering mound of inferiority by dint of his natural talents – except perhaps turn water into wine. Even that, surely, is only a matter of time, albeit not before he takes care of more urgent business, winning the Green Jacket. Victory at Augusta National next Sunday will give McIlroy the career Grand Slam, elevating him into a very select group of players who have won all four of golf’s major titles.
There are no stonewall certainties in top class professional golf, not even when a deity is swinging the clubs. But equally there is no serious observer of the game who would argue against the proposition that McIlroy is unmatched in the modern game. All other things being equal, he is the best there is. Even the other players accept his superiority, albeit never publicly and never as a precursor to raising the white flag of defeatism. When the great pros step on to the first tee of a Thursday they always think they have a chance, regardless of who they are up against. There is always hope to cling to. They could have the greatest week of their golfing life and the golden child, in this case McIlroy, could have a shocker. But what if he doesn’t? What if he plays as he did at a humid Valhalla last August, where he outlasted the field to win his second PGA Championship. Two weeks before that he was even more impressive in winning the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool.
If that Rory McIlroy turns up – the Rory McIlroy of the New York Times magazine – then the aura he carries into Augusta will find its final expression in a historic victory come Sunday afternoon. The truth cannot be denied. He drives the ball better, strikes his approach shots with more purity and strides the fairways with more purpose and confidence. If that Rory turns up then we can all sit back and watch as history evolves, as four Major victories turns into five, as greatness turns into legend. And yet…. there is another version of this story that could yet be told.
If the publicity machine insists that Rory is ready for Augusta, then recent history suggest that Augusta National is also ready for McIlroy, and not with an entirely welcoming embrace. Famously, the then 21-year-old superstar blew a four-shot lead on the final day of the 2011 Masters, signing for a final round 80. At the time this was judged to be a blip, an aberration that would be wiped from the memory by triumphs yet to come.
Those promised triumphs have indeed arrived but never at Augusta National. Not yet. The uncomfortable truth missed in the blizzard of positivity surrounding McIlroy arrival there this week is that Georgia has never been a happy place for the Irishman. In six appearances, he has only finished once in the top 15 (an eighth place last year that might fairly be described as “back door”). The reasons for the relatively poor record are not hard to uncover – in the last five Masters he has recorded at least one score of 77 or worse; in 22 career rounds he has run up 11 double bogeys and three triples.
On a golf course that rewards calculated risk, McIlroy record suggests he is prone to a gamble too far, never more so than on the greens, where he often found himself wide-eyed and bemused. Even he has admitted as much himself recently:
It (Augusta National) plays on your mind more than other courses.
That, friends, is a man dazzled by the white lights of uncertainty, by the discomfort of his recent past around this hallowed place. It is not the Rory McIlroy the world has come to know, the icon smiling at us from the front pages. It is not the Rory McIlroy who supposedly needs only turn up to collect the prize his talents deserve.
History is never easy, especially at Augusta, and it is probably best for McIlroy that he understands as much before he begins the week of his life. And it is probably best that we all understand it too.