“That driver’s singin’ and dancin’ right now, isn’t it?” McDowell whistled to the group, and McIlroy smiled, somewhat sheepishly.
McIlroy has the golf world singin’ and dancin’ now, with what is shaping up to be an epic Masters afoot. During the first weekend in March, McIlroy held off Tiger Woods and his closing, statement-making 62 to win the Honda Classic and rise to No. 1 in the world — a spot he lost only because Luke Donald, the previous No. 1, won two weeks later.
McIlroy’s status as the lone favorite is in question only because Woods, who owns four green jackets, finally won a week ago, and looks to be in every bit of the form that could win him a fifth.
With that backdrop, the 22-year-old McIlroy returns to Augusta — where he built a four-shot lead through three rounds a year ago, only to somehow post an unsightly 80 on Sunday — different in so many ways. There is the fact that he won the next major in which he played, a brilliant, record-setting performance in the U.S. Open at Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club
that, even as it was playing out, seemed to alter the landscape of the sport. There is the transformation of his body, his pudginess out and plyometrics in. There are a few tweaks to his swing, made with the help of the only coach he has ever employed, Michael Bannon.
There are also changes in his personal and professional life. He replaced his hometown girlfriend with Caroline Wozniacki, formerly the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world. He replaced powerhouse agent Andrew “Chubby” Chandler and his International Sports Management group with the lower-key Horizon Sports Management.
This trip to the Masters, then — McIlroy’s fourth — “will be very different,” for all those reasons and more.
“I wasn’t necessarily under the radar last year, but you know, I’ll be going in there with a lot more attention, a lot of scrutiny because of what happened last year,” McIlroy said at Doral, the last tournament in which he played. “The spotlight will be on me, and it’s something that I’ll just have to deal with. . . . But I’ll try to take the same approach and approach it like I did last year — at least for three days, anyway.”