Golf

Ex-No. 1 McIlroy taking a Lefty turn

Image: Rory McIlroy (© Matt Slocum/AP)
Rory McIlroy seeks his third major victory but his first at the Masters.
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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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AUGUSTA, Ga.

Rory McIlroy on Tuesday nominated 1997 and 2005 as the most memorable Masters tournaments he has watched on television.

Wonder what those two have in common?

No prizes for knowing that they were both won by Tiger Woods.

The 23-year-old McIlroy is still as much of a fan as a rival of the man who took his world No. 1 ranking away last month.

He grew up in Northern Ireland as a child prodigy idolizing the king of child golfing prodigies, wanting to be Woods as much as dreaming of beating him.

But the truth is McIlroy’s not the next Tiger Woods.

Woods is unique in that he not only possesses otherworldly talent but a feverish desire to hone it, improve it; get better. It’s no coincidence that the players Woods most admires are those with the strongest work ethic.

Instead of the next Woods, McIlroy is more like the next Phil Mickelson: a player with stratospheric talent but one whose disposition — and dedication — means he can be either brilliant or, as someone close to McIlroy so colorfully puts it, “rubbish."

After Woods won for the third time this season at Bay Hill, he sent a text message to his young rival.

“He told me to get my finger out of my arse,” McIlroy said.

The message was, excuse the proctological pun, pointed.

It was both a call to action, from one ultra-competitive champion to a young man he sees as having the talent to test him, and an admonishment.

It was an admonishment because, after golf’s last major, it seemed the Reign of the Boy King was upon us.

McIlroy, safely settled as world No. 1, had won the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island by eight shots. It was his second major title and the second time he won by eight.

Good players don’t win majors by eight; only the great ones do.

In the modern era, Jack Nicklaus won the 1965 Masters by nine and then, of course, there’s Tiger, who has won a major by eight shots or more three times.

Woods won the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach by 15 — a ludicrous feat that will never be repeated — the ’97 Masters by an even dozen and the 2000 British Open at St Andrews by eight.

McIlroy clearly showed he had the potential to reach for those stars. But what has he done since?

He sat on his laurels.

He was so content with 2012 and his five wins that he went on a very long holiday and had his agents negotiate a mega-deal with Nike that secured his financial future.

What he didn’t do was work.

Like Phil, he thinks he can just wing it.

That was painfully obvious in Abu Dhabi when McIlroy showed up in January totally unprepared — a prominent caddie told me he couldn’t believe how many irons McIlroy “skanked” — and missed the cut.

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He just assumed he could pick up from where he left off at the end of last year, but golf’s a fickle game.

He lost his swing and couldn’t find it, but instead of getting back on the horse, McIlroy took the next four weeks off. That only put more pressure on him and led to him being bounced in the first round of the Accenture Match Play. Then came the regrettable end to the Honda Classic, where a pouting McIlroy quit midway through his second round.

Since then, he actually has done the work he should have done in the offseason. And, such is his talent, he totally has changed the narrative.

From a man in crisis, he arrives at Augusta as one of the favorites, especially after last week’s second-place finish in San Antonio, where victory was denied only by a freakish, final-round 63 from Martin Laird.

It wasn’t just the high finish that has to please him but the fact his iron play was stellar. He led the field in greens hit in regulation, which bodes well for Augusta.

“I thought last week went really well, almost perfectly,” he said.

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Although Augusta has not been kind to him — his final-round 80 two years ago has to have left some scars — he insists that the Masters is his favorite tournament.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s the one you’re looking forward to the most. I had a chance to win in 2011. Obviously, that didn’t go too well, but it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s my favorite golf tournament.

“At the start, you’re in awe of the place. It probably took me a while to get comfortable taking a divot. Once you get over that and you treat it like any other golf course, the layout and the shots you have to hit out here, it’s a place I feel comfortable.”

McIlroy’s confident and comfortable enough that he has set himself a lofty goal.

"Would anything less than a win be a disappointment this week?," he asked. “Yeah, it would be.”

And the thing is, like the kid you knew at school who never studied but aced tests, McIlroy’s talented enough to do it.

Tagged: Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy

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