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'
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.
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