James Lawton: Rory McIlroy rallies in his battle against demons and illusions at the Masters
World No 2 steadies himself after patchy start to suggest a return of fighting spirit
He drove off the tee beautifully and with great accuracy in the gentle rain and then he walked jauntily up the first fairway with his umbrella lofted high in his left hand. Yet for a little, critical time here, Rory McIlroy was as much an illusionist as world golf's richest and most dynamic young player.
The illusion was that if he wasn't singing in the rain, he was hardly cast down by the pressures which have been building around him so relentlessly these last few months.
It was a pretty enough thought but it didn't really gain much oxygen in the tension surrounding the world's No 2 ranked player when he walked out past the fabled old oak tree in front of the clubhouse – at least not until deep into his round. By then he had found plenty of the best of his nerve – and, most vitally, the putting stroke that has threatened to dominate the world.
After battling to two-under, he said, "I'm happy where I am — I still in this tournament."
It was a statement, after going two-under par overall, he could not have anticipated a few hours earlier, especially when Tiger Woods made another declaration of his own determination with a burst of birdies on his front nine.
Already six shots off the pace of this tournament, which he seemed to have placed in the palm of his hand two years ago, McIlroy was heading for two bogeys on the first four holes of the day on which he needed to make a sweeping announcement that the worst of his bad recent days were over.
It was threatening to be still another weight of pressure, another challenge to what so recently had been suggesting itself as the most serene, seamless progress at the top of the game since the arrival of Woods.
Yes, McIlroy had rallied well enough at the Texas Open in San Antonio last weekend but now he had returned to a more brutal test of his ability, not just to return his game to that coruscating level which had often stunned his generation. He also had to quieten some of the most challenging growing pains in the history of mega sports wealth and celebrity.
Ever since Nike signed the deal that guaranteed him £78m over the next five years, ever since Tiger Woods claimed back from him his world No 1 ranking, ever since he moved from the glens of his native Ulster for the golf glare of Florida, and ever since someone first suggested that the lure of the good life might be taking the edge off his passion to hit a golf ball improbable distances to unlikely places, the questioning has been quite implacable.
The big one was certainly back in vibrant force when McIlroy stumbled at the first and third holes, thus raising the possibility of his worst experience on a golf course since his collapse to an 80 when the Green Jacket was on the point of being tailored to his needs in 2011.
It asks whether McIlroy will ever again find the clarity of vision and the simplicity of ambition which made him such a sensational winner of the US Open hardly before the blood of Augusta had stopped flowing and then, after another deflating crash in the Masters last spring, gave him a crushing triumph in the US PGA.
How long will he be beset by demons – and even, maybe the distractions, of his high-profile romance with Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, who this week commanded most of the paparazzi attention when she mis-hit a drive on behalf of McIlroy in the pitch-and-putt tournament?
This week he said that such problems had been hugely exaggerated but then the difficulty, with Woods already having made an impressive statement about his own levels of heightened determination, was that sooner or later he had to go out on the course and make his declarations come somewhere a little closer to reality.
One interrogator attempted to cover a huge sweep of a brief and spectacularly successful life when he said, "The back nine in 2011 seems a long time ago but when you have been back there playing, and also remembering those demons that came again last year, have they all gone – and, on a happier note, will Caroline be on the bag in the par-three tournament?"
McIlroy's eyebrows arched sharply and he said, "Yeah, of course all the demons have gone. They were gone as soon as I got off the 18th green. What is done is done and it doesn't matter. It was the front nine I struggled on last year. I got off to a couple of rough starts, a couple of sixes on the first. But I keep saying I'm glad to be back here. I have no ill memories of the place. I absolutely adore the golf course and it's great to be here. Yeah, Caroline will be on the bag.
Another question that has refused to go away these few days concerns the rise and rise of the Tiger.
Surely this brought still more pressure on the player who, so many insisted, had finally broken the spell Woods had imposed on the game for so long after his first, pulverising victory here 16 years go?
McIlroy insisted, "It doesn't make a difference to me at all. I'm here to concentrate on myself and play my game and try to shoot the best score that I can. It doesn't really matter what anyone else does because I can only control my own situation. I certainly know that if I can produce some of my best play I have a chance, no matter what anyone else does.'"
Perhaps most damaging of all is the sense that some irreparable damage was done not to McIlroy's aura but his own self-belief when he walked away from the Honda tournament in mid-round and with a deeply questioned case of toothache.
"Listen," says McIlroy, "every golfer professional or amateur would want to be competing here this week and I'm not exception – I do not fear the comments of any crowd because mostly I've been treated very well. I'm very lucky because I get great support from fans wherever I go and it's very much appreciated. I mean obviously now and again I get 'how's the tooth' or something like that. But overall, everyone's been great and I know how important this is."
Most vital of all yesterday, however, was McIlroy's ability to fight off the ropes, to say at this beautiful course, which had so frequently stalled his astonishing rise in the game – and given him a best finishing position of just 15th in four attempts – was that the ground that had been yielded would simply not be extended.
As the bogeys came, and the memory of his surrender at West Palm Beach perhaps building in the minds of some of his more ferocious critics, McIlroy had never been more obliged to produce a streak of the kind of defiant resistance to bad fate which the Tiger had once made a prime asset. He had to stand and fight and say that it was nonsense to claim that, just because he had moved home, become rich beyond most men's fantasy, and suffered a dubious case of toothache, a once brilliant talent would inevitably be turned to ashes.
It was a big point to make, in all the unpromising circumstances, but it had to be done and McIlroy finally managed to make it. He did it on the 8th hole. He changed, however briefly, the nature of his war of his attrition. He went on to the attack and produced an eagle. That took him to the turn at level par and it was as welcome as the sun bursting through the clouds.
Along the back nine he made one bogey but also took three birdies. Suddenly amid the smoke and the mirrors, the illusionist looked distinctly more like a young, highly competitive golfer named Rory McIlroy.
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