The major shuffle in the professional golf schedule paid off immediately for one prominent player who is working toward a major change in his stature. Because the Players was switched back to March, Rory McIlroy is able to enter the Masters with a big win under his belt and a huge weight off his back.
Now he has some steam as he arrives at Augusta this week with another chance —maybe his best-ever chance — to carve himself into golf’s Mount Rushmore. If he wins the Masters, he becomes only the sixth ever to complete the career Grand Slam and his chance to win the Masters possibly increased when he won the Players last month.
“I think it was huge,” said Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open champion who will work the Masters Thursday and Friday telecasts on ESPN. “If he’s in contention come Sunday afternoon, it’s a different Rory after winning the Players than it was before.”
That he had the chance to win the prestigious Players title before the Masters is a result of the revamped PGA Tour calendar, which moved the Players up two months and put the PGA Championship in May instead of August. So, one month after someone dons the green jacket in Butler Cabin, all the top players will be arriving at Bethpage Black for the year’s second major championship (an event McIlroy has won twice).
The timing could not have been better for McIlroy, who had been mired in a series of final-round flops, notably one at Augusta last April. After having spoken boldly as he headed into the final round in the last twosome with Patrick Reed, he shot 2-over-par 74. He finished six strokes behind Reed, the winner.
McIlroy bolstered his confidence last month. Even though TPC Sawgrass, with its island green and other quirks, is different from Augusta National, he can feel better about his chances of joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods in the elite career Grand Slam club.
“In this day and age, it's about winning and losing and what have you done for me and all that stuff, but it wasn't my best tournament of the year,” McIlroy said at the recent WGC Match Play Championship. “It was another learning opportunity. I think that's the thing from Sunday, what can I learn to bring to the next event and trying to think about it rationally and logically, and not to get too caught up in the emotion of getting a trophy at the end. That was awesome.”
His is only one of a handful of story lines heading into the first major of the season. The last time a major championship was held, the PGA outside of St. Louis last August, Woods stole the show and nearly won the tournament. He has yet to win this season, but he did play well at the Match Play, beating McIlroy.
There also is the saga of world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, seemingly a natural for Augusta but never has really contended there. Justin Rose, No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, often has played well at the Masters and once tied for first before losing in a playoff. Can Phil Mickelson play as he did in winning at Pebble Beach during the winter? What has become of Jordan Spieth? How about Brooks Koepka, still often overlooked despite winning three majors in the past two seasons.
Still, there is something different about McIlroy. He is generally as forthcoming as any professional athlete, recently speaking out on the rise of fan misbehavior at golf tournaments (something that usually is not a problem at Augusta).
As ESPN analyst Andy North said on a conference call this week, “I truly believe that when Rory is at his best, he’s better than anybody in the game and I think people understand that.”
Golf history and the public at large would look at McIlroy differently if he won the Masters, which might or might not be a big deal to him. “I think there's a difference between a personal desire and a need. And I think I've separated those two,” McIlroy said. “I would have said a couple of years ago, `I need to win a Masters. I need a green jacket.’ Where now it's, `I want to. I want to win it. And I'd love to win it.’ But if I don't, I'm okay.”
The pursuit figures to be interesting, even if some might believe he is behind schedule on winning the green jacket. Strange said, “If I went as a fan and I wanted to watch the players who I thought might win, I would be hard-pressed not to follow Rory McIlroy. He’s explosive, he’s likable and there’s a real damn good chance he can win.”