James Lawton: Rory McIlroy has recovered the magic to thwart Tiger Woods and spoil Augusta party
Rice’s election to the green jacket puts some of the most revered clubs in British golf very much on the back foot
Maybe it is a little early in the year for the committee men of Augusta National to say the fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high. However, before a shot is fired in the 77th US Masters it is hard to remember when their sense of well-being was so tangible down Magnolia Lane.
Tiger Woods is at the heart of it, naturally. His resurrection is being considered almost a formality as he seeks to win his fifth title here after a break of eight years – and his first major in five. Where better for Woods to return to the pursuit of Jack Nicklaus which started here so phenomenally in 1997?
But if a Tiger win would be one big reason for the green jackets believing the sun has returned to its proper axis – they love nothing better than moments of history, and preferably American history, unfolding on this golf course which can have rarely looked quite as exquisite as it did yesterday morning – it is certainly not the only one.
Who, for example, could have envisaged such a perfect cameo to resolve the bitter arguments over both racism and sexism that came here last Sunday afternoon?
Not so long ago, Augusta National had rarely looked so wrong-footed over the lack of a woman member – and a derisory number of non-white males – in the second decade of the 21st century, but what a perfect cover girl we had for the emancipation of women here at the sports institution created by Clifford Roberts.
He was the New York businessman who held some notorious views about the inherent superiority of the white race and who eventually shot himself near one of the cabins built for such heavyweight "honorees" as the late president Dwight Eisenhower.
On Sunday afternoon we had a scene which might have confounded the world and not only Roberts back before the growth of the civil rights movement. Not only is Condoleezza Rice black, she is also a Republican ex-Secretary of State who showed, while playing in the company of Phil Mickelson, that she can nail a 40-foot putt along with the best of the boys as well as the girls.
Rice was happy to give a post-round press conference that included the classic, "I putted well today, I did. They finally started falling on the back nine." Mickelson, who just happens to be the cover boy of country club America, could hardly have been more impressed. He flung his arms around her before announcing, "She is one of my favourite people to be around and she's phenomenal on the greens."
Her election to the green jacket also puts some of the most revered golf clubs in British golf very much on the back foot, with the breakthrough still awaited at this year's Open hosts Muirfield, as well as Royal Troon, Royal St George's and, notwithstanding a subtle splitting of its roles, the Royal and Ancient.
Throw in the additional fact that yesterday 14-year-old Chinese prodigy Guan Tianlang was in a firestorm of world media attention over the fact that on Thursday he will become the youngest ever Masters' entrant, and you will see that this is not a place showing any tendency to hide its light behind the nearest dogwood.
So perhaps non-Americans here should just dig in to await a thunderous rendering of "The Star-Spangled Banner". But then perhaps not... the fact is, no one has mentioned any of this to Rory McIlroy and while America preens itself in anticipation of a return to the old order, the 23-year-old who was supposed to be unravelling as seriously as the Tiger four years ago is also remaking himself.
McIlroy, we know already, will never do this in the manner of such institutions as Augusta National or Tiger Woods. He will never, we can be nearly certain, attempt to shut out all the light which doesn't directly illuminate the possibility of an improvement in his game. But then he will always, you also have to believe, be ready to ride the merest breeze of encouragement.
Already he has done this quite monumentally with his US Open and PGA titles and there is evidence that he might just have been nourishing such a mood of optimism when he flew in here by private jet from San Antonio.
McIlroy didn't win the Texas Open but he would have done if Martin Laird hadn't produced a 63 which might just prove to be the round of his lifetime. What was established, surely, was that the old spring of McIlroy inspiration, battered down by the disastrous run which followed his £78m Nike clubs deal and included the catastrophic decision to walk off the course in mid-round, was almost certainly back in place.
By plane, there are approximately 1,009 miles separating San Antonio and Augusta and no doubt they passed agreeably enough for McIlroy yesterday. Much more so, it is reasonable to conclude, than a similar journey once made by an old pro who was seen fastening his putter to his back bumper before driving off to his next assignment. Before leaving, with the putter clattering along the dusty road, he explained, "The last few days this putter has given me pure misery. Now I'm showing the sonofabitch what it feels like."
McIlroy's putter looked to be magically restored in Texas. Though he lost the chance to win his first title of the year – to set against the Tiger's three – he did make an imperious statement on the last hole after his Scottish rival had finished with a run of birdies. He invaded the green and came close to finishing with an eagle.
Both his driver and his putter have come back to life, which is something for Woods to reflect upon as he celebrates the reanimation of his own putter but, no doubt, still frets over the reliability of his work off the tee.
McIlroy, at the risk of another wave of censure, admitted the other day that he would rather miss 10 consecutive cuts than surrender the possibility of winning one major a year. His justification was that he had been able to step beyond the limitations imposed on the old golfers, however brilliant they were. With a stream of mega sponsorships, with Omega the latest eager to carry him on to still another financial planet, McIlroy says he doesn't have to play for pay. He can imagine his own game, his own powers of creativity, without any ultimate need to make a certain shot.
It is fanciful in the extreme, of course, and for the moment it might define the difference between the Tiger, so hopeful of fighting his way to his 15th major here, and a McIlroy casually speculating on his ability to turn back the worst of form with moments of spasmodic genius.
The need for this particular asset has plainly retreated with the growing evidence that he may well have fought his way back to a degree of competitive discipline. He knows now the extent of the critical retribution a golfer can expect if he commits the cardinal sin of turning it in at precisely the time a competitor of the Tiger's resilience is guaranteed to dig most deeply. He may also know that none of the big golfers ever believed they could cherry-pick the glory, the greatest available in their game, simply when their mood was right and their blood was up. It is not, certainly, the story of the Tiger's return to the heart of American regard.
This, though, should not persuade us entirely that the fish are jumpin' quite as high as the proud committee men believe. It is not as though Rory McIlroy hasn't proved that he is good enough to spoil anyone's party.
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