The Masters 2014: I am happy being golf's Cristiano Ronaldo, says Rory McIlroy

24-year-old returns for sixth visit to Augusta ready to accept the responsibility that comes with being 'The Man'

augusta national

The rain of Monday had blown through and the sun was beginning to burn the moisture from the early-morning air, bringing conditions into line with the perfect setting.

Tuesday at the Masters is sufficiently removed from the start of play to allow the golfers to go about their work free of the adrenalin surges that dry the throat and tighten limbs. And so it was that Rory McIlroy strolled through the front nine with Matt Fitzpatrick, the US amateur champion from Sheffield, who tees up on Thursday alongside the Masters champion Adam Scott.

At 24, McIlroy is only five years older than Fitzpatrick, but in golfing terms it might be a generation. McIlroy is joint-favourite with Scott to win this week in the absence of Tiger Woods, a detail that reflects not only his ability but his standing in the game.

The last time Woods missed a major championship in the United States it was McIlroy who lit up the landscape to win the 2011 US Open at Congressional by a record margin. Eight weeks earlier he had collapsed just as emphatically at Augusta, a four-shot lead on the last day insufficient protection against the suffocating challenge presented by this back nine.

Few in the game walk the fine line between success and failure like McIlroy. His ability to win big and lose big is part of the attraction, a combustible vulnerability that slots beautifully into the essential tension at the heart of sport; you never know what is going to happen.

Last Sunday, at the Shell Houston Open, he came from nowhere to rip through the field with the low score of the day, a 65, to finish in the top eight. Today, he could not have looked more relaxed as he walked this horticultural paradise with his young sidekick.

McIlroy seemed to revel in the role of old hand that his years deny him in other settings, his loping, confident stride conveying a sense of authority utterly absent in Fitzpatrick's awkward, awestruck movements.

This is McIlroy's sixth visit. He returns a two-time major champion, in better shape mentally, physically and technically, he says, than at any point in his career. And ready to accept the responsibility that comes with being the man, or as it was put to him, golf's LeBron James, its Cristiano Ronaldo and, this week, its Tiger Woods.

"I'm not uncomfortable with the position. Did it take me a while to come to terms with it? Yes, because it's not something you ever thought starting out your career you were going to have to deal with or handle. If you're in that position, then you're one of the top players in your sport. I'm certainly not at their level in terms of in their sports, but I'm working and trying to get there."

The events of 2011, the technical and emotional deterioration around Amen Corner after clipping catastrophically that branch on the 10th hole, are an indelible part of the McIlroy story, inviting him on each return to answer for them anew. The branch might have gone, lost in the same ice storm that accounted for the Eisenhower Tree on the 17th fairway, but the experience lives on, as vivid a chapter in the reel of Masters history as the agonising demise of Greg Norman 15 years previously.

McIlroy acknowledges the force of the emotions that he experienced that day, the tearful conversation with his mother the following morning as he processed what he had lost. But there is no lingering negativity associated with that critical hour, more a sense of gratitude for the lesson it taught him and how it contributed to the version of Rory McIlroy we see today.

"That's probably the only time I've cried over golf, that morning after in 2011, blowing a lead in the final round of the Masters, because you never know if you're going to get that opportunity again. But I have no ill feelings towards 2011. I thought it was a very important day in my career. It was a big learning curve for me.

"I don't know if I had not had that day, if I would be the person and the player that I am sitting here, because I learnt so much from it. I learnt exactly not what to do under pressure and in contention, and I definitely learnt from that day how to handle my emotions better on the course.

"It makes it easier these days when you have two majors in the bag. It's not that you don't care as much, but it's not the end of the world. You know that you will have more opportunities, and you've taken a couple of opportunities already."

Perhaps there was an omen in the chance meeting with Dan Carter, the great All Black who carries in the world of rugby union the mantle McIlroy is asked to accept this week. The two had never met but needed no introduction.

"He's staying in the same housing complex as we are. I walked into the gym and I saw him on the bike, and I go, 'There's a big lad'. And I was like, 'It sort of looks like him', but then I'm like, 'What would he be doing here?' So I got on the treadmill, and before I started to run, I looked back over, and I was like, 'No, that's definitely him'. I walked over and introduced myself."

All that and a personal best in the squat, 130 kilos. Perhaps this really is the week of the McIlroy power trip.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape