By Doug Ferguson
AUGUSTA, Ga. —
Three months into the season, Rory McIlroy feels as if it's already been a long year.
The splashy announcement of his Nike deal, and the commercial with Tiger Woods that raised hopes of a big rivalry. The missed cut in Abu Dhabi. The first-round exit from the Match Play Championship. Quitting halfway through the second round of the Honda Classic. The loss of his No. 1 ranking.
And now, McIlroy is ready to get started.
"I've always said the main golf season is from the start of April to the end of August, so that's when I want to play my best golf," McIlroy said Tuesday.
It all starts with the Masters.
McIlroy can't simply dismiss the last three months and the endless questions about the state of his game and his new equipment. He at least brings some measure of form to the first major championship of the year. Desperate to find his game, he added the Texas Open at the last minute and in turned out "almost perfectly." The 23-year-old from Northern Ireland didn't think about his swing, only his score. He challenged in the final round and wound up the runner-up.
Whether he's ready for Augusta National won't be known until Thursday. But at least he knows it's there.
"I've went through these patches before where I haven't played so well and the game feels quite far away, and then something clicks and then all of a sudden, it's back again," McIlroy said. "I probably should have learned more from it from last summer when I was going through those struggles. ... When I don't play my best, it's when I get into bad habits in my golf swing. Whenever my golf swing is where I want it to be, that's when I produce results.
"And that's what I've seen has started to happen over the past few weeks."
The problem has been the swing, not the clubs he was swinging.
Even so, McIlroy conceded the adjustment took some time. Woods took nearly five years before working all the Nike clubs into his bag. McIlroy did it all at once, and when he played poorly the first two months of the year, it only added to the scrutiny.
"The way I was hitting the ball at the start of the year, I needed a short game just to get myself around the golf course," McIlroy said. "Off the tee has been a big improvement. There was a little bit of an adjustment period getting the driver that really suited me. And once I got that, you gain confidence whenever you play rounds and you see yourself hitting good drives, hitting it in the fairway and setting yourself up with iron shots into the greens."
McIlroy has plenty at stake this year.
He already has two legs of the career Grand Slam, having set the scoring record at the U.S. Open when he won at Congressional in 2011, and then lapping the field at Kiawah Island last summer to win the PGA Championship. A win this year would put him exclusive company. Dating to 1960, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are the only players to win majors in three straight seasons.
Boy Wonder would love for that to happen at the Masters, and he's provided enough evidence that it could happen. McIlroy smiled when he was introduced for his news conference, and the moderator mentioned his best finish was a tie for 15th. That was in 2011, the year he took a four-shot lead into the final round, and still was leading by one shot going to the back nine until his game imploded. He closed with an 80.
A year ago, he was one off the lead going into the weekend, and this time self-destructed on the front nine. He closed with 77-76 and tied for 40th.
But there is no denying the affection McIlroy has for the Masters, which he calls his favorite major. He remembers playing Augusta for the first, so inspired by the purity of the place that he was afraid to take a divot.
Just a month ago, he was happy to make the cut and make progress. Now his goals are back where they should be.
"Would anything less than a win be a disappointment this week? Yeah, it would be," he said. "Every time you come here to Augusta, you're wanting to win that green jacket, and every time that you don't, it's another chance missed. But if I'm sitting here on Sunday night and I've finished second or if I've give it a good run, you can't be too disappointed because you've had a great tournament. But the ultimate goal is getting one of those jackets."
Among those who could be in his way is Woods, the prohibitive favorite with wins at Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill in the last few months.
There was hope of a rivalry between generations, only that hasn't materialized. They only thing they have in common this year is that both have a swoosh on their shirts, both started the year by missing the cut and both have celebrity girlfriends — tennis star Caroline Wozniacki for McIlroy, Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn for Woods.
Woods has had plenty of rivals over the years, and sees McIlroy as the next one.
"Over the course of my career, I've had a few. Certainly, Rory is this generation," Woods said. "I've had Phil (Mickelson) and Vijay (Singh) and Ernie (Els) and David (Duval) for a number of years, and now Rory's the leader of this new, younger generation. So, yes, definitely."
McIlroy isn't so sure.
Never mind that he became the first player to win consecutive PGA Tour events with Woods in the field, or that he built a big gap in the world ranking by the end of last year. Padraig Harrington once said it could be McIlroy — not Woods — who has the best chance of breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional majors.
Not so fast, McIlroy replied.
"When you speak of rivals, you tend to put rivals who have had similar success," McIlroy said. "He's got 77 PGA Tour wins. I've got six. He's got 14 majors. I've got two. If I saw myself a rival to Tiger, I wouldn't really be doing him much justice."