Never has a late afternoon half-hour on the practice range, three days out from a tournament, been more scrutinised and, though there were some superficially encouraging signs when Tiger Woods finally materialised there, the long wait pointed to a man struggling for the sense of conviction he will need for the days just ahead.
His arrival here became a story plot all of its own. Woods appears at the range at 3.26pm. Woods leaves it at 4.14pm. Woods reaches the first tee at 4.31pm.
But the exterior signals of the man’s unclouded mind – hugs for old friend Mark O’Meara and former coach Sean Foley – the semblance of a jig to the music you assumed was playing through the earphones he wore – bore meagre comparison with the way that the man America expects to seize the Masters, Rory McIlroy, had started his day in golden sunshine and concluded 18 holes by lunchtime.
His practice chips around the green at the third told the story of the Woods interior mind: ball after ball - fully ten - clipped relentlessly towards a tee pushed into the green, most of those close, but none giving the satisfaction of hitting the miniature target. The teethy grin materialised at the fourth tee, when he had driven off spectacularly close to the pin. It had been a sombre countenance until then. The truth is that no practice round – not even one played before the extraordinary number of 50,000 of ‘patrons’, as the venerable old club likes to call them – can carry a candle to what is about to unfold.
Even McIlroy, with his morning zest, could not take encouragement away from a course where he has shot a 77 or worse at least once in the last five years. It said everything about the fearful uncertainty that the old indigo plantation – a horses-for-courses place – holds for him that the first roar sounded by a 2015 Augusta Masters crowd yesterday was for his junior partner, not him.
The Independent's sports writers' picks for 2015
The Independent's sports writers' picks for 2015
5/9 Rugby Union
Kid Galahad (right)
8/9 Rugby League
9/9 Formula One
That junior was Bradley Neil, a 19-year-old amateur from Blairgowrie, Perthshire, who possessed the uncomplicated fearlessness of teenage years. The sun had just illuminated the pines and the pink dogwood when he took a wedge to chip from 90 yards and eagled the hole in front of 200 people.
McIlroy looked on, having sent his own tee shot into the bunker. He then held out the palm of his hand to the teenager for a congratulatory slap, laughing at the fact that he’d seen him do the same thing at the same green a few weeks ago. He learnt a little more of the confidence which had led the Scot to ask over lunch, in the breakfast room here the Friday before, if a few holes of golf together might not be out of the question.
McIlroy would not have been immune to disappointment when, after a fragile ripple of applause died at the fourth tee 15 minutes later, he piled a three-iron tee shot 10 yards short and wide of the green, down in the bunker-littered dip below. And then sent another tee shot to the self-same place. Neil stepped up for two strikes of his own and straight onto the carpet they sailed.
It is the work up at the greens which matters on days of preparation like this, not the tee shot lines which McIlroy has calibrated a thousand times in his mind. But he certainly did not seem to want to let the fairways go, playing the full 18 holes of the course where, come Sunday evening, he will want to be the sixth man in golfing history to accomplish a career Grand Slam.
The Augusta weather forecast – rain today, tomorrow and Thursday – offers succour, if McIlroy needs it. His previous four Majors have been won on courses softened by several days of rain before sun at the finale.
“You just can’t tell if it’s there…” Neil told me when I asked him if McIlroy had confided anything about the pressure amid a round of golf that included talk of football and girls, he related later. “Whether he hides it or not, you can’t be sure.”
There was something in the way McIlroy moved, collar up, in those early hours yesterday which told why days like this require perspective. There was a spring in his step and a looseness; no tension and barely a flinch on the second tee when he found that sand and held out his hand for a second ball to strike. It will be a different story for him when there’s a scorecard in his hand and a sense of competitive purpose, three days from now.
They were not the only one wanting to drink up the essence of this place yesterday. The sun was not even up before players began arriving, wringing every moment from the quintessence of Augusta before it is all over: the magnolia, the flowering peach and the song of the Carolina wrens. Nick Faldo patrolled the practice range in the precious blazer and even he condescended to signing replica pin flags.
For a first-timer, like your correspondent, it was self-evident why the timeless reverence of the place creates such a need to keep going back. In the business of communicating the stories of sport we demand closer, faster, fuller access but you don’t cross the ropes to be where the players are at the Augusta National and you sign to an undertaking not to take mobile phones onto the course. A sanctity to give thanks for.
Graeme McDowell felt that, speaking of the “little nuances I’ve not noticed before, putting that in the memory bank,” as he completed a practice round which he hopes will salve the ignominy of having only made two cuts in seven years at Augusta.
“Sometimes I’ve needed a padded cell when I’ve walked off the green. But it doesn’t get any better than this,” he said.
And this year delivers the potential for more drama than we have known for years. McIlroy is the one who absorbs America and it is the everyman in him that the nation seems to be absorbing. “How far will the best swing in golf take him?” asked the New York Times Magazine last weekend, committing 5,000 words to the subject.
Woods is, to his compatriots, a patent write-off – with not so much as a mention of his challenge in yesterday’s New York Times.
The American story will more likely be Bubba Watson, with a power so indomitable amid two Masters wins in three that talk of the ‘Bubba-proofing’ of Augusta has not actually been ridiculed. Or Jordan Spieth, still gathering competitive momentum in the Shell Houston Open even as the sport’s eyes began to look to Georgia.
The piece of advice Neil revealed that McIlroy had shared with him, as they walked the course, spoke for the way that there will be no quarter spared in what is about to unfold.
“He told me: ‘A lot of times you can question yourself, but if you’ve chosen a club, commit to it’,” Neil revealed. “He said: ‘Don’t doubt yourself at all.’”
Yet this is a course designed to propagate doubt. That is why we are destined for a confrontation as mesmerising as the backdrop. A late Monday practice will not define its outcome.Reuse content