Sport

Rory can become a golfing legend at Augusta, if he beats demons

SportBy Sunday World
Meltdown, Rory McIlroy
Meltdown, Rory McIlroy

At last! It’s here, the US Masters, the final piece in the golden jigsaw that Rory McIlroy has been piecing together almost since he first drew breath.

Nine months ago the wee man stood on the 18th green of Royal Liverpool Golf Club and cradled the third major of his Grand Slam collection.

The Open Championship was a huge step forward for him and he admits that no sooner had he been handed the Claret Jug than he began seriously thinking about Augusta,the Masters, and his place in the old game’s history books.

For McIlroy the months spent waiting for this event have been the longest he will ever have to endure in his professional life. “I’m just so glad I’m almost there,” is his stock reply to everyone who asks how he is feeling right now.

No wonder he is relishing the thought that the 2015 Masters is now just a few breakfasts away. Of course these few days will be filled with questioning and hype, lots of hype.

There are still long hours during which he must retain optimism as well as that natural charm, while trying to resist the small, dancing doubt that must be somewhere in his head that say he is about to experience the biggest of anti-climaxes.

Fate Is he? Well, a smart guy wouldn’t bet against such a disappointing end to all the fanfares and drum-rolls that have accompanied McIlroy (practicing at Augusta this week below) on his way to Augusta National, Magnolia Lane, and whatever fate now awaits him.

Mind you, the same smart guy would not bet that the Irishman could not become only the sixth golfer ever to win all four majors − the Masters, the US Open, The Open and the USPGA. And the first European to do so.

If he pulls it off at just 25, only one player, Tiger Woods, will have managed such a feat at a younger age − and then just by a few months.

Judged how you like, the rise of Rory McIlroy has been meteoric. He says he has been dreaming of this moment not just since he won The Open last summer, but almost all his life.

He may not be too far off telling the truth here either, for it was as a baby-faced prodigy that he wrote to his hero Woods after winning the Under-10 World Championship to warn the great man that he was coming after him.

No doubt whoever opened this cheeky letter – and that wouldn’t be Tiger – smiled thinly before tossing it away, but no-one is doubting the authenticity of McIlroy’s challenge to Woods’ pre-eminence now.

To be fair, the American was one of the first to observe McIlroy and say that “he has all the components to be the best player in the world”.

It’s true, it really does take one to know one. The only way in which this Masters could be more keenly anticipated would be if Woods was in decent form and likely to challenge McIlroy in Georgia.

But he isn’t. He has not played competitively for more than two months, his game, when last seen, as ragged as a battle-standard caught in a hurricane, and he has slumped out of the world’s top 100 for the first time since turning professional.

While we wait to see what the immediate future holds for Woods, McIlroy is heading a small platoon of young stars who are now the future of the game itself.

Youthful players such as Jordan Spieth and Jason Day are as likely to spoil Rory’s Augusta ambitions as are thirty somethings such as Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott and the often overlooked Englishman Justin Rose.

Others, too, may hit top form just when they need it most, while Bubba Watson is not only defending champion, but is going for a third win in just four attempts.

It is, let’s face it, an enormous ask for McIlroy to pull this off. Remember also that it was at Augusta four years ago that he imploded over the back nine while leading and apparently cruising to victory.

That memory, he says, has spurred him on to everything he has achieved since. Okay, I’ll buy that, but I also buy into the theory that if he is leading on Sunday then the 10th tee will offer up a minefield for McIlroy.

Surely, there has to be some residual scar tissue following the nonsense that happened on this hole in 2011. And don’t tell me that Rory is too good not to win a Masters some time, if not this year.

Remember Greg Norman? Shave Whatever you feel about that, it all adds to the mix for what promises to be the most interesting Masters since Tiger wrapped his fist around Augusta with a record win in 1997.

He was still learning to shave properly at the time. Tell you what... why don’t we just try to relax and enjoy the fun and games that start on Thursday? Whatever else we know, we know for sure that McIlroy was made for these big moments, that he embraces the pressure. Whatever happens he will remain balanced and sane.

Or, as he puts it: “I enjoy my own company, just me and my thoughts .It clears my head (to be on his own for a few hours) and that’s something I’ve had since I was a kid.”

Lucky man? I’d say so, wouldn’t you?

Bill Elliott