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par-fection 'My record is hardly terrible. Maybe I've finally figured out Augusta' - McIlroy focused on 'tiny margins'

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Rory McIlroy works with coach Pete Cowen on the range prior to the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy works with coach Pete Cowen on the range prior to the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy works with coach Pete Cowen on the range prior to the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

There is a saying in Georgia, “No moolah without the grueller”, or “No gain without pain”, but Rory McIlroy believes that not only did he benefit from his Augusta agonies of 2011, but that the game changed as a result of the fearless attitude of that curly-haired Belfast boy.

On the 10th anniversary of those unforgettable scenes, when the 21-year-old front-runner suddenly endured a Masters meltdown and shot a tear-stained 80, it is an intriguing claim by McIlroy, which challenges the narrative that this ever-burgeoning generation of boomers was created by the Tiger Woods example.

No doubt, McIlroy says, the 15-time Major winner inspired this thrilling youth movement, but when it comes to their gung-ho style, he maintains they are more Rory’s rookies than Tiger’s cubs.

“If there’s one thing I started in the game, I think it’s that a lot of guys come out now and are playing very similar to me and how I’ve always played,” he says. “If you think of Tiger through the Noughties, it was a very conservative game plan, wasn’t a lot of drivers.

“But then, I came out and I hit driver a bunch, really aggressive off the tee. And I feel like that has carried on. College players are being taught that way and they’re coming out and they’re hitting that miles. It’s funny, because I was just doing it naturally, it’s just what I wanted to do, how I got my kicks.

“But more and more players started doing it. It was the entire strokes-gained era thing as well. It made everyone realise that being able to do what I can do off the tee is a huge advantage. That wasn’t the case at the turn of the last decade.”

McIlroy and Mark Broadie make an unusual duo in the power revolution. While the former is an individual who left school at 15 to carve out his inexorable path to the golfing elite, the latter is a business school professor and obsessed recreational golfer. At the same time as McIlroy’s Masters fairy tale became a nightmare, to be followed by a US Open redemption epic, Broadie’s “shots gained” metric was being accepted by the PGA Tour as a more accurate analytical tool than those often deceptive traditional measurements, of driver accuracy, greens hit and putts per round.

By looking at it through the prism of relativity – “shots gained on the rest of the field” – Broadie swung a Titan clubhead through some age-old myths, chiefly “Drive for show, putt for dough”.

“It just wasn’t the case,” McIlroy says. “I’m a big believer in stats... and strokes gained is the best stat that has come into our game for the last, well, ever.”

Overnight, McIlroy’s God-given talent and carefree philosophy was granted academic legitimacy. Of course, the new breed and their advisers would follow and with the unrelenting, popularisation of TrackMan – the digital technology with which players can review key swing parameters, including ball speed, launch angle, spin rate – the young pro was no longer in thrall to experience.

Everything he or she wanted to know was right there on the monitor. Instant professionals. Just add branded water “We have so much more knowledge,” McIlroy says.

“I’m not saying back in 2011 players didn’t have any knowledge, but I just think with ‘shots gained’ with TrackMan, and just everything that they’re putting in place in terms of a backroom team and physios and coaches and mental (support) and their own chefs and all sorts of stuff... well they are seemingly taking it more seriously than ever, even though every top golfer has always taken it seriously. Players all have their own teams around them nowadays and that’s something that wasn’t that normal 10 years ago.”

Is McIlroy a victim of his own success, has he been engulfed by the new wave he helped generate? No professional worthy of their own self-belief would ever acknowledge such a thing and McIlroy prefers to peer back through the decade more positively. Starting on that Sunday afternoon of April 10.

“Sure, it hurt – you can’t be four clear overnight, still be in contention at the turn, before taking a triple bogey on the 10th and struggling in with an 80, without it hurting,” he says. “And there were parts of it that were a low and certainly I felt low as it unravelled. But a real low is what happened the year before at the Masters – I missed the cut. Compare that to getting into contention and leading at the Masters.

“I was so close to doing something really great and when the fog clears you have to take that out of it. I’m big on taking the positives and moving on, but I’m also very big on the fact that you have to be a bit of a goldfish in golf. You need to have a very short memory.”

Unbelievably, nine weeks proved long enough. At Congressional, in the very next Major, McIlroy won the US Open by a barely credible eight shots. “That month taught me so much for my career and for the journey I’ve been on,” he says. “It gave me the lesson of resilience and how important that is, as is the awareness that you shouldn’t get too high during the highs and too low during the lows. That’ll always stand me in good stead.”

Perhaps more than ever. Never mind 2011, this is the first time since 2010 – when he was 20 – that the four-time Major winner has gone into the Masters outside the world’s top 10 and for the first time since he was eight he has someone other than Michael Bannon overseeing his swing.

Pete Cowen, the much lauded English guru, was handed the reins last month after McIlroy admitted introducing gremlins into his previously revered swing by trying to emulate the 200mph ball speed of Bryson DeChambeau.

His critics scream of self-mutilation and his record shows that he is without a win in 18 months and without a Major in more than six years. The Masters remains the crown he requires to become only the sixth player to complete the career grand slam. “Haunted,” they yell. McIlroy crashed out in the group stages of the WGC Match Play two weeks ago and missed the cut by 10 shots at The Players. What possible reason could anyone have for extolling his candidature between those cathedral pines?

Well, how about his last 54 holes at Augusta in November? After an opening 75 he bounced back with 66-67-69 for a tie for fifth. Only Woods has ever played the last three rounds of the Masters in fewer shots – 200. And that was in 1997.

“Yeah, maybe in those last three rounds last year I finally figured out the blueprint on how to play Augusta,” he says. “But then, I have finished in the top 10 in six of the last seven years.

“My record is hardly terrible. It just always seems to be a few bad holes and they are the tiny margins at this level. It sounds obvious and it is, but it is simply a matter of cutting out the mistakes this time.”

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