AUGUSTA, Ga. Jim Nantz has a feeling.
He’s predicting that the 86th edition of the Masters may be a special week, perhaps even a historic one for Rory McIlroy.
“I know how these stories unfold,” Nantz said during a recent pre-Masters media Zoom call. “Augusta just has this ability, for some reason, to tell it better than any other place. Those scripts, one year beats the next and, I mean, I have in my head and my heart [that] he’s going to win the Green Jacket one year. I mean, he’s going to have a lot more chances, but this just might be the year. This just might be the year. It’s quiet enough going in and he’s a rare talent. Maybe that’s the story this year in the end, that he completes it.”
McIlroy is making his eighth attempt to win the Green Jacket, the lone major missing in his collection to become just the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam and join golf’s most exclusive club. He’s recorded six top 10s in the last 10 Masters and has a game that seems tailor made to win at Augusta National Golf Club. But the burden of expectation has held him back. Or has it simply been his game plan?
McIlroy said patience and discipline will be the key to make this Masters different from the rest as he makes his 14th start in the season’s first major. It’s something he learned best from playing alongside Dustin Johnson in the opening two rounds in 2020 when Johnson raced out to a 12-under start through 36 holes.
“I wasn’t in awe of the way he played. It’s just he did the right things and he put it in the right spots, and he holed a few putts and he took advantage of the par-5s, and he basically did everything that this golf course asks of you,” McIlroy said. “That’s what this place is all about. It’s as much of a chess game as anything else, and it’s just about putting yourself in the right positions and being disciplined and being patient and knowing that pars are good, and even if you make a couple of pars on the par-5s, that’s OK, and you just keep moving forward. You look at all the previous winners, especially over the last five to ten years, their iron play and their approach play has separated them from the field. That’s a really important part of your play this week.”
Augusta National is known as a second shot course. Three of the last seven players who have won the Masters have led the field in Strokes Gained: Approach, and five of the last seven have been in the top 5 of that category. That hasn’t exactly been McIlroy’s strong suit.
“His iron play in particular has been nothing terrific,” Golf Channel analyst Paul McGinley noted.
Three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo pointed to his inconsistent wedge game as an area of concern. “You know, some of these wedge shots, when he stands up and hits them or misses a green or hits them to 50 feet and three putts, I mean it’s just gone on a little bit too long,” Faldo said.
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But McIlroy contends that if he picks his spots and plays more conservatively he can position himself for a Sunday charge.
“If you hit a wedge to 20 or 30 feet, that’s OK. Middle of the greens, you hole a few putts, that’s what it’s about. It’s about hitting greens. It’s about playing to the fat part of the green, being somewhat conservative,” he said. “I think that’s what wins you Masters. You see the highlights of people hitting heroic golf shots around here, but that’s just one golf shot. The rest of the time, they’re doing the right things and being patient and being disciplined, and that’s what wins you green jackets.
“It feels like a negative game plan, but it’s not. It’s just a smart game plan. It’s playing the percentages. Look, Sunday, if you need to take risks, you take risks obviously, but for the first 54 holes, you just have to stay as disciplined as possible. To me, yeah, that goes against my nature a little bit, so it is something I have to really work hard on.”
Since Rory McIlroy’s last major win, score to par in the majors
Round 1: 34-over
Rounds 2-4: 60-under (3rd-best in span)
— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) March 31, 2022
For most of the last eight years since winning the 2014 British Open, McIlroy has been the center of attention when he arrives on the grounds of Augusta National. But entering this week at No. 9 in the world and with the latest comeback of Tiger Woods grabbing the headlines, McIlroy may also benefit from floating under the radar. He was on the ninth green of his Tuesday practice round with fellow Irishmen Padraig Harrington, Shane Lowry and Seamus Power when Woods teed off at the first with Justin Thomas and Fred Couples.
“It was a mass exodus from the 9th green to the 1st tee, and then the back nine was lovely and quiet,” McIlroy said.
Perhaps McIlroy’s new approach to Augusta National will produce a late Sunday tee time and a chance to win the Green Jacket he so desperately covets.
“I’ve always said time is on my side, and I’ll keep saying that until it isn’t, whenever that is,” he said. “But right now, I still feel like time’s on my side.”