Rory McIlroy was given a 99 when he arrived at Augusta National this week. It was his competitor's number – not an ice cream with a chocolate flake in it. He was the last player to arrive to register his name. He will be hoping he is the last to leave the premises on Sunday night – wearing a Green Jacket.
McIlroy was chuffed to be 99, a number that has quite a sporting pedigree: Ronaldo at Milan, Michael Vaughan when he was captaining England, and Wayne Gretzky, ice hockey's "Great One". McIlroy is an avid rugby fan ("I played a bit of scrum-half at school") so maybe if he gets into trouble around Amen Corner on Sunday his caddie JP Fitzgerald can yell "99" and McIlroy can run over and clobber his nearest opponent in a re-enactment of the British and Irish Lions call to arms on their 1974 tour of South Africa. Except, of course, running on Augusta's hallowed turf is not allowed.
The Masters is a unique tournament whose committee comes over all gooey-eyed looking back in time at the history of their April invitational. This is its 75th anniversary and there is always a large dollop of nostalgic charm poured over the first tee when Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus get play under way tee as the honorary starters. But the Masters quietly embraces the future, too (and there's even an app for that this year). For a glimpse of the new world order, look no further than the poster boy pin-up threeball of McIlroy (aged 21), American Rickie Fowler (aged 22), and Australian Jason Day (23).
Fowler is the young darling of the US Tour, and is tipped to be the heir to Phil Mickelson's crown. Day is next in line in Australia's increasingly desperate search to uncover the new Greg Norman. But it is McIlroy who has broken into the world's top 10 first at No 9. An accolade that, this week, fails to impress McIlroy. "You can throw the world rankings out of the window when you come to The Masters," he said. "Because experience is so important here."
This is just his third visit to Augusta. He missed the cut last year and finished tied 20th on his 2009 debut. "You've got Woods who has won four Masters and Mickelson with three. And you always get an older guy doing well here – like Tom Watson, maybe."
McIlroy's mental time capsule only reminds to 1997 watching on TV at home in Holywood, Northern Ireland, as Tiger Woods redefined the game. "I must have watched that '97 tape a 100 times," he said smiling. "I could tell you every shot that Tiger hit."
Personally, though, McIlroy prefers to wipe 2010's missed cut from memory. "Coming in here last year I had just missed the cut at Houston and I was struggling with my game and a bad back," he said. "I wasn't in a great place, you know?" He would rather look back to his debut in 2009, which, he believes, better feeds the positive vibes that sports stars crave. "I shot 31 on the back nine on Sunday," he said. So he knows he can post a score that could challenge for a Green Jacket and an early breakthrough in the majors. He chose to skip the Houston Open last week to concentrate on practice and preparation.
"I am feeling good," he said. "I got 10 really good days of practice in Florida." He then snuck into Augusta last week to complete his homework. "I was flying in and it was the same feeling you get on Christmas morning. You can't sleep, you're up at 5am, you're up at 6am... It's a very special place for any golfer. It doesn't matter if you are coming back for the third visit or your 20th. I have mapped the greens. Definitely got over the awe factor of Augusta. Done everything," he said sounding like a young man on a mission. So much so he played just nine holes of practice on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"I'm just conserving energy and going to put it all into the four days," he said. "I feel fresh and ready to go. My first tournament back out is usually my best one. So that's the strategy going into this year's majors."
The strategy he needs to remember most is patience, normally an alien characteristic to anyone under the age of 30. But McIlroy has been trying all year to reign in his naturally flamboyant instincts.
"I need to think a bit more," he said. "To know when to fire at pins and when to go for the middle of the greens. But I feel I am at the stage where I can compete and win the big tournaments. Even though I've only won twice as a pro, I feel I have the game to win majors. Seeing Martin [Kaymer], Graeme [McDowell] and Louis [Oosthuizen] winning one last year has made me realise it's attainable. If they can do it, so can I. I know I have beaten most of the players in this field before at some point. So there is no reason why I should be thinking that I can't go out and do it this week."
The last European to win at The Masters was Jose Maria Olazabal. The year? '99. There's that magic number again.