By DOUG FERGUSON, AP Golf Writer
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Rory McIlroy has turned Augusta into a second home over the last few weeks, twice flying in for marathon practice rounds that allowed him to play 99 holes in his preparation for the Masters.
Apparently that wasn’t enough.
With violent storms forecast, McIlroy got up early Wednesday to squeeze in another nine holes.
He played them as though he were seeing Augusta National for the first time. On the par-3 16th, after hitting his tee shot to 4 feet, McIlroy hit putts to all four corners of the green from every angle. On the 17th, he stayed in the bunker left of the green hitting shot after shot to tees stuck in the green where the holes will be cut.
“The more I can just play the golf course and almost make it seem like second nature to me, where to hit the balls on the greens and where to start putts and know where the pin positions are … the more that can become second nature, the better,” McIlroy said.
And the sooner he can be fitted for a green jacket, the better.
McIlroy lacks only a Masters title to join five other players who have won the career Grand Slam, the most exclusive club in golf. Tiger Woods was the most recent member in 2000. The only player to complete the Grand Slam at Augusta National was Gene Sarazen in 1935, back when the modern version of the Grand Slam didn’t even exist and the Masters wasn’t even the Masters (it originally was called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament).
He had reason to think this would be the first Grand Slam he won.
Six years ago, a 21-year-old McIlroy was running away from the field in building a four-shot lead until he collapsed on the back nine with a 43 to shoot 80.
He hasn’t come particularly close ever since.
“I sort of a feel a little bit like what Phil (Mickelson) goes through when he goes to the U.S. Open,” McIlroy said last month, referring to Mickelson being a six-time runner-up in the only major Lefty hasn’t won. “But at the same time, I haven’t finished second at Augusta six times. … But yeah, winning at Augusta is difficult enough. You want to win the tournament that week. You just want to beat the guys that you’re playing, and if you do that, you know that all this other great stuff comes along with it.”
This will be his third crack at the career Grand Slam since McIlroy won the third leg at the 2014 British Open.
He was the favorite in 2015 until Jordan Spieth blew everyone away. McIlroy was in great shape a year ago when he went into the weekend one shot behind Spieth, a star pairing in the final group on Saturday. McIlroy didn’t make a birdie in the third round, shot 77 and tied for 10th.
Far different from Mickelson’s plight is that McIlroy is still only 27 and there are plenty of Masters ahead of him. His peers talk in terms of “when” instead of “if.”
“He’s a guy that you know that when you’re paired up, he’s been there and you don’t feel like you have that major championship winning edge,” Spieth said. “I don’t say I’ve won the Masters and he hasn’t. Trust me, he’s certainly capable of it and he’ll win at least one. If you ask every single player, that wouldn’t be a question.”
McIlroy is the only player among the top four in the world to have not won this year.
That, too, might be an advantage.
He lost in a playoff in the South African Open at the start of the year while playing with an injured rib, and only after the tournament did he discover it was a hairline fracture that would keep him out seven weeks. That cost him four tournaments — two in the Middle East, one in California and one in Florida — in his pre-Masters schedule.
McIlroy has played only 10 competitive rounds since he returned from the rib injury. He had a 36-hole lead at the Mexico Championship until a 70-71 weekend. He made a late charge at Bay Hill and had a birdie putt on the 18th that would have forced a playoff (he three-putted and finished two behind).
In the Match Play, he only played twice when Gary Woodland had to withdraw.
Dustin Johnson has been the talk of golf over the last two months, and that was sure to at least help McIlroy manage the expectations.
“It’s been a relatively quiet buildup to the Masters for me, which has been quite nice,” McIlroy said. “I don’t feel like I can fly under the radar anymore, but at the same time, it’s sort of felt that way to me and it’s been nice to be able to prepare and just go about my business and try to get ready for this tournament.”
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