Jogging is generally discouraged on golf courses, particularly among the palm trees, where everything and everyone seems chill. Last month, though, Rory McIlroy all but ran a race between holes during a practice round at Doral’s Blue Monster. When he played, his blue Sharpie remained tucked in the back pocket of his slacks. When he left each green, it popped out — autographs here, more over there, a picture with these guys, another with that kid, and then the jog to catch up to playing partner and friend Graeme McDowell.
The last of those little runs came to the 17th tee, where McIlroy — the reigning U.S. Open champion, at the time the No. 1 golfer in the world, and clearly a favorite at this week’s Masters, despite the body parts he left strewn all over Augusta National a year ago — arrived huffing and puffing. He took a breath, pulled out his driver and cranked one, a powerful strike with a delicate draw, right down the middle.
“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.”
Those first three days, McIlroy played sublimely, and it looked as if his coronation would come just where Woods’s came 14 years earlier. But in a way, the world learned more about McIlroy — and McIlroy perhaps learned more about himself — because he hit that wayward drive at the 10th, because he had to punch out from the cabins, because when the tournament had slipped away, all he could do was bury his face in the crook of his arm after another errant tee shot at 13.
“The way he handled the meltdown last year at the Masters was spectacular,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North, who will be on hand this week as a commentator for ESPN. “He stood there and took it like a man, and I think that’s very important. Because he handled it so well, it helped him grow as a player immensely.
“We forget how young he is. He’s just a kid yet. He handled that exceptionally well, much better than we’ve seen some veteran players handle defeats like that. And I think it really helped him once he got to the U.S. Open. We saw there what he can be.”
We have seen it since, too. The rush of winning a major can overwhelm even the most mature players, but McIlroy’s achievement was hailed here and abroad in a way none had been since, perhaps, Woods’s romp at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
McIlroy didn’t play a competitive round after his victory before teeing it up at the British Open, where he tied for 25th, an indifferent performance. He made an aggressive, ill-advised swing at a ball rested against a root at the PGA Championship, injuring his wrist and finishing tied for 64th.
McDowell, his countryman from Northern Ireland and one of his most comfortable playing partners — despite their 10-year difference in age — could relate. After he won the 2010 U.S. Open and took the clinching point in the Ryder Cup that fall, his brain and his life, admittedly, scattered. This would seem to be a point of discussion between the two friends, in part because McIlroy’s change in agents was to McDowell’s firm, and in part because they simply get along. Yet it is not.
“I don’t think there’s much advice I can give Rory,” McDowell said. “He’s a smart young man. One big difference between him and I: He’s been groomed for stardom his whole life. Perhaps it was a little bit more unexpected for me to do what I did. He expects this of himself. He’s prepared for it.”
McIlroy has shown those qualities since he returned from allowing his balky wrist to heal. In that time, he has played 11 tournaments. Only once has he finished outside the top five. He has won twice, finished second four times and third three times more.
And now, the specter of Augusta National, and what happened a year ago. He has not, for a minute, shied from it. Not in the moments nor the months afterward. Not now.
“It was definitely a defining moment,” McIlroy said. “It could have been the crossroads of my career. I could have did what I did on Sunday at Augusta and let it affect me and let it get to me, and maybe go into a slump or feel down or feel sorry for myself.”
There will be parts of his routine that change for this year’s Masters. In 2011, his parents remained at home in Holywood, Northern Ireland, just outside Belfast, and he brought with him a group of childhood friends who helped relax him by slinging around a football in the evenings. This year, though, Gerry McIlroy will attend, just as he did at Congressional, where he shared a victorious embrace with his son.
And should McIlroy be in contention Sunday, there will be an altered approach. He showed it at Congressional. In the final round of the Masters, when he held that four-shot lead, he opened with a worrisome bogey. In the final round of the U.S. Open, when his margin was a staggering eight shots, he opened with a dagger of a birdie.
“A big mistake that I made that day [at Augusta] was thinking too much about what everyone else was doing instead of concentrating on myself and . . . maybe thinking about setting myself a target or setting myself a score,” McIlroy said. “Because when you do that, it focuses your mind on yourself. I mean, this game, you have to be very selfish, especially in situations like that. You can’t let your mind wander and think about what anyone else is doing.”
This week, there will be so many others he could worry about — the revived Woods, the top-ranked Donald, a refocused Phil Mickelson, a still-hungry Lee Westwood, on and on. It has been only a year’s time since that final-round 80. Enough time, it turns out, to radically change approaches, circumstances and accomplishments.
“All I wanted to do was put myself in the position again,” McIlroy said, “just to see if I had learned and see if I could handle it better.”
He had, and he did. Now comes the next time at Augusta, with the golf world waiting to sing and dance again.