For Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, 19, There's Nothing Major About Playing His First Masters
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
AUGUSTA, Ga., April 6 -- It must take something otherworldly to arrive at Augusta National Golf Club as a 19-year-old, warm up for the Masters for the first time, and simply greet it all with a shrug of the shoulders. Yet here was Rory McIlroy, a budding star residing somewhere underneath his low-riding ballcap, doing just that Monday afternoon.
"I'm not really one to get overwhelmed by much these days, for some reason," he said. "Don't know why."
McIlroy, a brash, floppy-haired talent from Northern Ireland, might have more focus on him this week than any teenager here since Tiger Woods made his Masters debut as an amateur in 1995. McIlroy made the cut at the British Open as an 18-year-old amateur and turned pro in 2007. His confidence is now buoyed by a February victory in the Dubai Desert Classic, a European tour event, over a field that included Sergio García, Miguel Ángel Jiménez and countryman Darren Clarke -- some of the world's best players. That helped put his world ranking at 17 entering this tournament, better than the past two Masters champions, Zach Johnson (24th) and Trevor Immelman (32nd).
"Obviously, I'm really excited to be here; don't get me wrong," McIlroy said. "But I want to try and get the most out of this week as possible, so you can't really be in awe of anything."
The win in Dubai helped make some of the competitors here quite aware -- if not in awe -- of McIlroy, rather than the other way around. So, too, did his appearance this season in the Accenture Match Play Championship, the very tournament in which Woods returned from surgery to rebuild his left knee. If McIlroy and Woods each won their first two matches, they would have faced each other in the third round. McIlroy did; Woods didn't. McIlroy was finally ousted in the quarterfinals by Geoff Ogilvy, the fourth-ranked player in the world and eventual champion, but Ogilvy needed five birdies on the back nine to win narrowly, 2 and 1.
McIlroy's nine holes of practice here Monday came with Mike Weir, the Canadian left-hander who won the Masters in 2003. Asked if he learned anything from the former champion, McIlroy said he "didn't ask many questions" and noted that the pair hardly have anything in common.
"He can plot his way around the golf course more," McIlroy said, "where I would just try and hit it as far down there as possible."
Another shrug of the shoulders. Thus, McIlroy was asked if all of this -- his enormous talent, coupled with his laissez-faire attitude -- separated him not only from his peers, but from most of the field. No, he said.
"I'm just an average guy," he said, "that can play pretty good golf."
Player's Last Major
Three-time champion Gary Player announced Monday that this will be his last appearance in a major championship. At 73, Player will have played in a record 52 Masters, two more than Arnold Palmer and seven more than Jack Nicklaus. The reason, Player said, is simple: Augusta National will play this week at 7,435 yards; when Player first appeared here in 1957, it was 6,980 yards long.
"I'm exercising profusely, but it's very difficult at 73 to build strength," Player said. "The golf course is so long. It is just so long. I mean, I'm hitting a wood to almost every single hole."
Player played a practice round with Immelman, who beat Woods here last year for his first major championship. On the night before his victory, Immelman received a call from Player, a fellow South African whom he first met when he was 5 years old. Immelman said afterward that the call inspired him.
"Trevor said nice things and gave me too much credit," Player said. "I was proud of him, a fellow South African. And today, he seemed very much in the right frame of mind -- very calm, very relaxed. To win a major championship, it's just so hard, and he's already done it."
Anthony Kim, the 23-year-old who won the AT&T National in Bethesda last summer, arrived Monday for his first-ever look at the course. His assessment: "Windy."
Gusts blew to nearly 30 mph during Monday's practice rounds, creating havoc, especially for those players experiencing Augusta National for the first time. Forecasts call for temperatures in the 70s and lighter winds by the time play begins Thursday.
Kim arrived here battling injuries. He has dealt with a shoulder problem during the early part of this season and has played in only five events. Then last week, when he said he was "100 percent," he took an aggressive swing with his driver and strained one of his hamstrings.
"I don't really know what's going on with my body," he said. . . .
Woods, the four-time champion who will make his first appearance in a major championship since knee surgery last summer, played a practice round Sunday and putted Monday. He is scheduled to address the media Tuesday.